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Published August 29, 2010, 12:00 AM

Fargo shows promise as vaccine center

Fledgling facility’s director brings intellectual capital, connections
The fledgling Center for Biopharmaceutical Research and Production at North Dakota State University essentially occupies the sparely appointed office of its director, Satish Chandran.

By: Patrick Springer, INFORUM

The fledgling Center for Biopharmaceutical Research and Production at North Dakota State University essentially occupies the sparely appointed office of its director, Satish Chandran.

But Chandran brings with him a wealth of experience in scientific research and launching biopharmaceutical companies.

And he has connections – including the right to develop a medical solution, devised at Harvard, that shows promise in extending the viability of transplant hearts from 4½ hours to as many as 10 days.

If approved, Chandran says, the solution could be manufactured in Fargo, bringing new jobs and opportunities. Because it’s considered a medical device, and not a drug, it has a faster track toward approval and reaching market.

Chandran’s first priority is to assemble a team of talented researchers while working to raise funds for projects, often in collaboration with local partners.

“What I bring to the table is intellectual capital,” he said, adding that he is working with five or six biotechnology companies. “My job as I see it is being a catalyst.”

He was recruited to NDSU after leading research divisions at Pfizer and Wyeth-Lederle Vaccines, pharmaceutical companies, and founding biotechnology companies.

His strategic plan, presented last week to campus administrators, aims to raise up to $7 million to $12 million over the next three to five years, with the goal of making the center self-sufficient.

“Satish is an amazing researcher and an amazing businessperson,” said Mary Batcheller, director of business development for the Greater Fargo-Moorhead Economic Development Corp., which is targeting vaccine and biotechnology companies and startups.

“He increases our visibility and credibility tremendously, I think,” she said.

The new biopharmaceutical center is just one of a number of initiatives under way to establish Fargo-Moorhead as a center for developing vaccines and other biotechnology products.

Some highlights:

E Altravax, a company with headquarters in Fargo and research laboratories in California, hopes to begin clinical trials soon of a therapeutic vaccine to treat Hepatitis B, a liver disease prevalent in Asia and the developing world.

Altravax has been awarded $1.8 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health to pursue vaccines for the AIDS virus and influenza.

E Aldevron, based in Fargo with operations in Madison, Wis., and Germany, recently opened a new lab in Fargo and is working with biotechnology clients on numerous projects – including production of the therapeutic Hepatitis B medicines Altravax wants to test.

E Avianax, based in Grand Forks, has therapeutic antibodies in development for West Nile Virus, avian flu, and other illnesses. If approved, they could be produced in the Red River Valley. The firm is in talks with the NDSU center about developing its research, which is getting assistance from the University of North Dakota School of Medicine.

E Sanford Health is hiring a vice president of research to be based in Fargo. The position will oversee research projects yet to be determined and would build on its earlier work involving clinical research trials.

Fargo-Moorhead narrowly lost out recently to the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., “Research Triangle” in trying to recruit a Canadian biotech company, Medicago, which has a $21 million defense grant to mass-produce vaccines quickly and cheaply.

Michael Chambers, president of Aldevron and a leading proponent of Fargo-Moorhead’s push to become a vaccine center, said the fact the metro area was a finalist for a major project like the Medicago plant is a good indicator of future success.

“I am very happy with how things are coming along in Fargo-Moorhead’s life sciences community,” he said, adding that he agrees with Chandran that the first priority is recruiting top-flight talent.

That caliber of talent, he said, exists at Altravax, a company he helped found, which started operations in January and now has 10 employees, mostly its research team, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., all formerly with Maxygen.

“We’re a brand new company with a long history,” said Robert Whalen, Altravax’s chief scientific officer. The firm’s leading product, a therapy for Hepatitis B, is a potential $1 billion market.

“As a small company, we’re very fortunate to have a lead product that’s ready for clinical testing,” he said. “We have a relatively rich pipeline of potential products that are in development.”

As the company grows, many of the business management positions can be located in Fargo, said Leonard Ruiz, Altravax’s chief executive officer.

Ruiz and Chandran agree with Chambers that Fargo has excellent prospects for establishing itself as a vaccine and biotechnology hub. Vaccine proponents credit Sen. Byron Dorgan, N.D., who established the Red River Research Corridor, for laying critical groundwork, as well as Gov. John Hoeven’s centers of excellence initiative.

Economic development leaders have targeted the industry as a priority, and business and education leaders are passionate supporters of the ambition, Chandran said.

“I think Fargo – actually, I cannot think of another area that has said we’re going to focus on vaccines,” Ruiz said.

If Sanford Health included vaccine development in its local research initiatives, that would be a big boost to helping establish a base of expertise, Batcheller said.

Ben Perryman, Sanford‘s president of research, said it is too soon to determine what its Fargo research initiatives will be. That will become clear starting with hiring a vice president of research for Fargo.

“What we want is the best person in the field we can find,” he said. One consideration will be whether the candidate’s basic research complements already established clinical research in Fargo.

Sanford’s research program in Sioux Falls, S.D., established a decade ago, includes 30 principal investigators among 170 to 180 full-time employees. Whether Fargo research operations eventually approach that size remains to be seen, Perryman said.

“We fully anticipate putting in resources and developing research,” in Fargo, he added.

Chambers, whose company started on the NDSU campus in 1998 and now has 80 employees, predicts Fargo-Moorhead’s biotechnology sector will employ several hundred people within five years.

Over time, Chandran wants to assemble a research team able to address major disease categories: inflammatory diseases, infections diseases and autoimmune diseases.

“For that,” he added, “you need tools and skills,” not only to develop medicines but to help take them to market.

“Eventually,” Chandran said, “it should be possible to do all of it.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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