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BioPerspectives

Biotech Booming in Birmingham

  • Carol Potera

Rich reserves of iron and coal once made Birmingham a major producer of iron and steel. In fact, the city’s nickname was “The Pittsburgh of the South.” Like Pittsburgh, the steel industry and local economy sharply declined, and now clean technology companies are boosting Birmingham’s economy. Many of them, like Soluble Therapeutics, are located in the Innovation Depot, close to the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) campus.

The building, once the largest Sears & Roebuck retail store in the South, fell into disrepair and then was renovated as a technology incubator. Innovation Depot is the largest incubator in the Southeast. In 2011, the National Business Incubation Association named Innovation Depot its “Incubator of the Year” and CNN Money called it “one of 7 hot incubators in the U.S. and the only one in the Southeast.”

Innovation Depot operates in partnership with UAB to foster the growth of technology businesses. About 150 companies have “graduated” from the incubator, which has had a $1 billion economic impact on Birmingham in the last four years. Currently the incubator houses 84 companies that employ 470 people. Twelve are biotech/life science companies, and the rest largely focus on information technology and engineering. Garner of Soluble Therapeutics, who previously worked at biotech startups in Maryland, says: “The speed at which biotechnology in Birmingham is growing is comparable to the early days in Boston, California, and other large biotech hubs. It’s imperative to have an incubator to share resources and enjoy hallway networking.”

The first tenant of the Innovation Depot in 2007 was Discovery BioMed, which outgrew the incubator and recently moved to a larger facility. Founder, CEO, and CSO Erik Schwiebert, Ph.D., resigned his tenured position at UAB to apply translational science to critical pathways in drug discovery. “If you are going to administer a drug to a human patient, why not screen candidates in human cells with biological and disease relevance?” he says. Although obvious, most drug candidates today are screened in high-throughput systems that neglect physiologically relevant end points.

Discovery BioMed specializes in custom human cell-based engineering and drug discovery R&D services. Physiologically relevant human cell systems can be integrated into any stage of drug discovery to identify lead compounds and their disease relevance to improve clinical success. After screening a panel of drug compounds, “we can tell a client which one to take into clinical trials. This saves them time, money, and adds value,” says Dr. Schwiebert.

The company offers primary and immortalized cells with retained in vivo-like phenotypes and human cell-based assays. Human cell products, plated on 96-well and 384-well microtiter plates, include cardiac myocytes and vascular endothelial cells; white and brown fat adipocytes; a variety of human cancer cells; normal and cystic kidney cells; and healthy, cystic fibrotic, and asthmatic airway cells.

Another tenant of Innovation Depot, Agenta Biotechnologies, was started by oral surgeon Arthur DeCarlo, D.D.S., Ph.D. The firm’s patented platform, based on proteoglycans, improves bone and tissue healing. Proteoglycans are natural body components that promote healing by carrying important growth factors to injured sites and increasing blood supply. The long glycosylated chains of proteoglycans take different forms that help to regenerate tissue, support cartilage and skin, and form membranes around blood vessels.

Agenta’s Customized Therapeutic Proteoglycan Delivery (CTPD) platform administers customized DNA on a plasmid matrix to injured tissues. Once delivered, the body’s own cells generate proteoglycans with specific carbohydrate chains programmed into the DNA sequence. “We are pioneering DNA prodrugs,” says Dr. DeCarlo. The CTPD technology produces novel proteoglycans with diverse therapeutic functions that can be applied to bone, cartilage, spinal discs, and skin. The first target is oral bone healing and new growth in the jaw and around teeth.

Agenta has another patent pending for a membrane made of chitosan and glycerol. This unique material looks like plastic, but is extremely strong, flexible, and can be sutured into place. The chitosan implant will cover membranes and graft sites to improve healing, starting with periodontal disease reconstructions and oral surgery applications. Drugs and biotherapeutics also can be delivered to wound sites on the chitosan implant.