From mapping brains to modeling diseases

Virginia’s bioscience industry hopes to grow through increased collaboration

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Mike Grisham is CEO of The Catalyst, which offers grants
to encourage cooperative biotech projects. Photo by Rick DeBerry

Two years ago, the General Assembly established the Virginia Biosciences Health Research Corp. with one major goal: To encourage cooperative biotech projects involving researchers from different Virginia universities and partner them with industry. There was just one hitch: That kind of cooperation wasn’t really happening.

Mike Grisham, CEO of the Richmond-based nonprofit corporation that’s now known as The Catalyst, recalls that when he’d tell Virginia university researchers that he had grants to offer them for collaborating with other state universities, “They would say, ‘Well, I don’t really know anyone at any of our other universities.’ … In Virginia the universities are fiercely independent. …We set out to change that culture.”

And Catalyst has made progress: In less than two years, it’s provided more than $4.4 million in seed money to a dozen collaborative bioscience research projects between universities and private companies, resulting in $10.5 million in matching funds and $22 million in additional investment.

One Virginia success story is Charlottesville-based biotech company HemoShear Therapeutics, which was spun out of research at U.Va. as a private company. HemoShear manufactures platforms that model human tissue systems and disease behaviors with the hope of developing new pharmaceutical treatments. The University of Virginia, George Mason University and HemoShear received a $450,000 matching grant from Catalyst to fund research for the National Cancer Institute that created a tumor model platform that mimics the biology of human tumors for lung cancer and pancreatic cancer.

“We’ve done a lot with that $450,000, and we’re proud of it,” says HemoShear’s co-founder and Vice President of Research and Development Brian Wamhoff. “We’ll be developing new drugs for patients with uncurable cancers. … We’re able to re-create those patients’ diseases outside of their body and develop new therapies for them. It’s almost science fiction.”

Biotech is a hot, fast-growing sector and “it can be a big driver for Virginia over the next decade,” Grisham says, noting that companies collaborating with Virginia universities range from startups and university spinoffs to global corporations such as Pfizer and AstraZeneca.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration is focused on making Virginia known as “the brain state” because of cutting-edge research by universities and private industry in the neurosciences. 

For example, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus in Loudoun County, which opened in 2006, is focused on pioneering neuroscience research and developing advanced imaging technologies. So is the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute in Roanoke, which is recruiting 5,000 volunteers for its Roanoke Brain Study, a longitudinal research project using genetics and behavior studies and neuroimaging to examine how people make decisions.

Virginia has a great advantage in biosciences because of the strength of its research universities, McAuliffe says. “To me, we’ve got the assets here. Now it’s time to take it to the next level. … We need to get more aggressive. … We now need to create a statewide entity to drive this growth in biosciences.”

In December 2014, McAuliffe announced the creation of a new Virginia Bioscience Initiative to promote and expand the state’s biosciences industry. Since then, the state has hosted a technology roundtable focused on commercializing university research, and in April the state government hosted the state’s first bioscience conference, THRiVE.

“I promise you this is going to yield long-term, sustainable results,” says McAuliffe. Biosciences jobs are high-paying and stable, he says, and will “continue to drive innovation … and will spawn entirely new industries down the road.”
“We think Virginia is extremely well placed” to be a biosciences success on many fronts, says Jeff Gallagher, CEO of Virginia BIO, the nonprofit trade association representing the life sciences industry in the commonwealth.
North Carolina and Maryland have larger, more established biosciences industries, but that’s really an asset for Virginia, Gallagher says, because it means biosciences companies here have skilled talent pools nearby.

Northern Virginia, long a bastion for IT and tech businesses, is particularly well suited for working in biosciences. “It is my belief we can become a global leader where data science meets bioscience and health,” Gallagher says. As many large Virginia research corporations such as Northrop Grumman, MITRE and Noblis have seen federal contracts dry up, they’ve been pivoting resources into biomedical and bioscience research, he notes.

Health providers such as Inova also are entering the research field. As an example, Gallagher cites, the Inova Translational Medicine Institute in Falls Church, which focused on genomic research and medical research to improve patient care, particularly in oncology.

Virginia also has a plethora of innovative bioscience startups and university researchers, and that number is constantly growing, says Gallagher, noting that his association has about 300 member companies.

Richmond-based Health Diagnostic Laboratory had been a standard bearer for bioscience in Virginia in recent years. Yet with its fall from grace amid a federal settlement of Medicaid fraud charges, there hasn’t been a single voice advocating for the industry, Gallagher says. He hopes the McAuliffe administration will change that by creating a state office or advocate devoted solely to biosciences. In the past, he says, state economic development efforts to promote entrepreneurship and innovation have been “sector agnostic.”

B. Frank Gupton, chair of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering’s Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering, is one of the state’s key innovators. He served on McAuliffe’s biosciences technology roundtable last year and recently helped form the Virginia Drug Development Consortium, a collaboration involving VCU, the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech. “We’re trying to take the innovations that are occurring at the different universities in drug discovery [and] move them down the pipeline and increase the intellectual property value of them,” he explains.

Gupton has received more than $10 million in research grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a principal investigator working on the foundation’s Medicines for All initiative. It is aimed at finding quicker and cheaper ways to manufacture drugs treating diseases such as AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

Utilizing nanotechnology, Gupton helps pharmaceutical companies develop new catalysts to create drugs more efficiently. “We’ve taken reactions that take the pharmaceutical industry about eight to 10 hours to run, and we can do them in about 10 seconds,” he says.

The nation hasn’t yet recognized Virginia as a bioscience center, “but we’re working really hard on that,” Gupton says. “Part of the problem is we’ve been working individually in pockets of excellence, but I think Governor McAuliffe has worked really hard to coalesce a lot of the university resources around his initiatives, and it’s starting to get traction.”

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