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Natural solutions: Utah's biomedical companies unlock Mother Nature's secrets.

In 1986, Hunter Jackson and his three-year-old son trapped spiders in their backyard. Unlike other dads and sons, however, the Jacksons did more than just put them in jars or take them to show-and-tell. In what Jackson calls "a bizarre twist on the old-fashioned family farm," he took the arachnids to his lab, where he and his wife milked them for their venom.

Jackson and his colleague Tom Parks studied spider venom while working at the University of Utah's School of Medicine. Intrigued by the potential medical benefits of the venom's components, the two unded NE'S Pharmaceuticals, Inc. Today, that company is one of the largest in Utah's growing biomedical industry.

"Biomedical technology is any effort to utilize natural ingredients or natural processes to provide relief, cure or therapy of some kind," explains Brian Moss, president and executive director of the Utah Life Science Association (ULSA), the trade organization for biomedical and medical device firms in Utah.

Moss estimates three dozen biomedical companies exist in Utah, working on everything from analyzing the human genetic code to finding natural compound therapies to cure cancers. Biomedical (or biotechnology companies usually work with internal life processes and medicinal compounds, rather than with medical devices or other types of diagnostic technologies.

Deriving medical products from natural elements has gone on since the first worried mother applied a poultice to a wound; however, the biomedical field coalesced into an industry, separate from other medical fields, within the last 20 years.


From Milking Spiders to Curing Disease

In his office in Research Park, Jackson, now chairman, president and CEO, laughs about NPS Pharmaceutical's early days, when renegade spiders and flies in his coffee cup were an unavoidable part of every workday.

That spider research blossomed into collaborations with Pfizer, Inc. and FMC Corp., which provided an economic stimulus to the company. By 1992, NPS had evolved to the point where they needed more funding, so they obtained venture capital. In 1994, the company went public.

Although they no longer study spider venom, NPS learned valuable lessons from that early work. "We moved from being a research-based discovery company to one that not only discovers, but does clinical development of our own drugs. We're now preparing to enter the marketplace with our own products," says Jackson.

NPS Pharmaceuticals employs 170 people in Salt Lake City and Toronto. Their success stems from a balance between developing some products on their own and developing other products through collaborations with large pharmaceutical firms.

For example, their work with parathyroid hormone, which regulates the level of calcium in the blood, is yielding two separate products. The first product, being developed through collaboration with Amgen, Inc., will eventually produce treatment for dialysis patients suffering from hyperparathyroidism, which causes a number of complications including serious bone loss. The second product, which NPS is developing independently and hopes to release to the market in mid-2005, is an injectable version of the parathyroid hormone for treating osteoporosis.


Decoding Genetic Puzzles

In 1991, another research project at the University of Utah was spun off to a new company called Myriad Genetics, Inc. Pete Meldrum, president and CEO, says the company initially focused on "discovering genes that cause disease, and using that information to understand the role that genes play in cancer."

Today, Myriad's 520 employees are creating genetic tests to determine an individual's risk of developing certain diseases. Myriad currently sells four tests that look for gene "markers" that show a heightened risk of breast cancer, colon cancer, hypertension and melanoma (a skin cancer).

Myriad also develops drugs to treat diseases. "We have a prostate cancer drug in human clinical trials," says Meldrum, "and this year we re moving three more drugs into clinical testing -- one for colon cancer, one for Alzheimer's and a broad anti-cancer drug."

Facing Challenges

The biomedical industry faces some tough challenges. Says Clark at NPS, "There are a number of barriers to entry. It's a risky field and an expensive field. Time frames are very long. It's not like high-tech. You can't just write a piece of software to cure an illness."

Clark's colleague Jackson agrees. "This is a very challenging business, because we're trying to solve problems, the answers to which have already been written by nature, and we're trying to discover what those answers are. We can be as clever, as diligent and as committed as e can possibly be, but at the end of the day (or the decade, which is more likely) you open the envelope and the answer is what the answer is. You've either pushed the right buttons in the body, or you haven't."

The main regulatory agency for the biomedical industry is the Food and Drug Administration. As Myriad's Meldrum explains, "The FDA provides extensive oversight and regulation of any new drugs that are developed. It takes an average of seven to 10 years to get a new drug approved by the FDA, and it costs many hundreds of millions of dollars to approve a single drug."

A particular challenge facing Utah biomedical companies is a lack of experienced biomedical business professionals. Utah offers a wealth of scientific talent, but because the industry is still relatively new here, industry-experienced management candidates are rare.

Moss says many of the companies that belong to ULSA struggle to find qualified management personnel. "Utah isn't unique in the industry," he says. "People who are trained in the industry are in high demand." According to Moss, many Utah companies hire business professionals from other industries, who then go through on-the-job training. To help the situation, ULSA offers a year-long course for Utah biomedical professionals, offering training by member companies in topics such as finance, ethics and drug development.

Despite the challenges, the biomedical industry appears to have a strong future, partly because of the endless demand for better ways to treat illnesses. According to Moss, "We're less than a tenth of the size of the IT industry here in Utah. However, the potential for us growing and perhaps even eclipsing other industries is huge."

Meldrum echoes his enthusiasm. "A number of smaller biotech companies have been started over the last several years. There's an exciting future in the state of Utah."


Stalking Disease-Causing Genes

One such small company is Salus Therapeutics, Inc. Organized in late 1999, the company, which is currently funded by venture capital, is still in the research stage. They have only 10 employees, although more are planned in the coming months. "Salus is a drug discovery/drug delivery company," says Dr. Richard Koehn, president and CEO. "One area of the company is using technology to discover those kinds of molecules that can be used as drugs, and the second area is using chemistry to deliver those drugs." Salus' technology is used to discover oligonucleotide medicines, which target specific genes that cause diseases such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis and AIDS.

Currently, Koehn says, the company is doing pre-clinical evaluation of compounds. He expects their technology to be in clinical testing in two years. But bringing an actual product to market is still several years away. "It's a long haul to grow a company in the biotechnology sector," says Koehn. "Like all small companies, we live from hand to mouth." However, Koehn is optimistic about the future, because they are currently collaborating with large pharmaceutical companies, and anticipate more formal partnerships in the future.

A Growing Industry

Is Utah's biomedical industry growing? "Very much so," says Moss at ULSA. Companies like NPS, Myriad and the Huntsman Cancer Institute are attracting both people and money to the state. In addition, he says, "We [Utah researchers] have become world leaders in genetic research because of the genealogical resources located here in the state. It puts us in the forefront of the industry."

Moss also credits Utah's universities with helping establish Utah's biomedical culture. "Ninety-six percent of all Utah companies in biomedicine are home-grown. It [the industry] comes up from research institutions like the University of Utah, Utah State and BYU."

According to David Clark, vice president of operations at NPS, growth is an immediate reality as they anticipate the introduction of their first products into the marketplace. Though that goal is still three years away, Clark says, "We're at the point in time where we are doing a lot of procurement of talent." The company is ramping up marketing, sales and business management functions.

Myriad Genetics, too, is growing. With both tests and drugs already available, the company's revenues increased last year by 70 percent, and they've added 200 employees. "We are just completing the addition of 60,000 square-feet of lab and office space to our facilities," Meldrum says.

Gov. Leavitt, who has a strong history of supporting science and technology, also champions Utah's biomedical industry and encourages its growth. In fact, Hunter Jackson was recently awarded the Governor's Medal for Science and Technology for his work at NPS Pharmaceuticals. Says Jackson, "The people who will benefit from this work are people with serious medical problems that need the kinds of things that the guys across the hall from me are working on today."

Kelly J. P. Lindberg is a Kaysville-based freelance writer.
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Author:Lindberg, Kelly J.P.
Publication:Utah Business
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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