November 15, 2007 (Vol. 27, No. 20)
One of the First Buildings Completed Houses a 60,000 sq. ft. Incubator that Will Help Start-ups
The Colorado Science+Technology Park at Fitzsimons is a poster child for how communities can transform decommissioned military installations into profit-making enterprises. Originally an army hospital where soldiers had been treated since World War I, Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Denver was shut down 12 years ago. The Fitzsimons Redevelopment Authority was subsequently formed to oversee the conversion of the site into a one-square-mile campus that focuses on human health, drug R&D, and patient care.
The redevelopment authority partnered with the land-locked University of Colorado Health Science Center (UCHSC) located a few miles away. When completed, $4 billion will have been invested in development of the 18 million sq. ft. site and 30,000 people will be employed at Fitzsimons.
To date, $2 billion of capital investment has been built and occupied, including UCHSC’s hospital and schools of medicine, pharmacy, nursing, and dentistry. “An old army base has become an enormous economic generator,” notes Jill Farnham, executive director of the Fitzsimons Redevelopment Authority.
The Bioscience Park Center was one of the first buildings completed. It is a 60,000 sq. ft. incubator that will nurture life science start-ups. The facility, opened in 2000, was designed to inspire collaborations among scientists who can share standard equipment like autoclaves and ice makers. Bioscience start-ups contract for generic laboratory space on a one-year renewable basis. A majority are spinoffs of academic research at UCHSC. At last count, the laboratories were filled to capacity with 25 companies employing 150 people.
The Bioscience Park Center boasts some successful graduates. Myogen, one of the first tenants, was purchased recently by Gilead Sciences for $2.4 billion. GlobeImmune initially rented one-quarter of a laboratory, then grew so rapidly that it expanded from 7,000 sq. ft. in the incubator to 40,000 sq. ft. at its new location. “Now we’re working to have space ready to accommodate companies as they grow,” says Vicki Jenings, director of business relations at Fitzsimons Redevelopment Authority.
Critical Mass Reached
The state’s biopharmaceutical industry first emerged from research at the University of Colorado at Boulder in the late 1980s. Over the last 10 years, a strong cluster has grown in Denver around UCHSC at Fitzsimons. The focus is on translational research and licensing locally to create new companies. “Our strategy is to take good science and build a local biopharmaceutical cluster rather than recruiting from the outside,” says Denise Brown, executive director of the Colorado Bioscience Association (www.cobioscience.com).
Just a decade ago, Colorado companies when acquired would be moved out of state. Today, firms are staying in Colorado even after mergers and acquisitions. “Investors view Colorado as a mature cluster,” according to Brown. “It’s best to leave companies in place to grow.”
The critical mass of researchers at Fitzsimons and the cooperative environment attracted MBC Pharma(www.mbcpharma.com), one of the incubator’s newest tenants. “When we were first looking for space, we saw that there was a culture here that we wanted to be part of,” says Shawn Zinnen, vp of preclinical development. One company moving out of the laboratory space offered Zinnen cell culture hoods that were being discarded. “That type of comradeship goes a long way when you’re starting out,” he says. MBC Pharma’s current neighbors include a histology company and a manufacturer of custom immunoassays, both of whom could become valued allies.
The incubator’s proximity to UCHSC, on the other hand, is what drove Boris Tabakoff, Ph.D., to set up Lohocla Research (www.lohocla.com) at Fitzsimons. For example, there is easy access to animal facilities at UCHSC to perform toxicology and pharmacokinetic experiments. In addition, sites at UCHSC house mass spectrometry, x-ray crystallography, and NMR equipment. This includes a two-story tall, 900 megahertz NMR, one of just nine in the nation. “Only large pharmaceutical companies can match this type of instrumentation,” Dr. Tabakoff points out.
Residents of the Bioscience Park Center include companies that provide services such as bioanalytical testing and genomic screening as well as start-ups. MBC Pharma moved from Boulder to the Bioscience Park Center in June. The company’s technology improves bisphosphonates by using linker chemistry. Its pipeline consists of these compounds combined with different chemotherapy drugs, anti-infectives, and anti-inflammatory agents for treating bone disorders and cancer that has metastasized to bone.
In cancer that has metastasized to the bone, when these conjugates are injected, they treat cancer as well as bone loss, says David Sebesta, CEO. “Treating cancer that has metastasized to bone is our first therapeutic area,” Sebesta says. MBC Pharma plans to file an IND in the first quarter of 2008 for its lead compound, MBC-11, to treat bone metastases in end-stage cancer patients.
MBC Pharma also has a related technology that attaches bisphosphonates to vitamin B6 to increase the oral availability of osteoporosis drugs. Less than 1% of current therapies are absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract. Because patients must take these medications on an empty stomach and remain upright, compliance is poor. Receptors in the gut for vitamin B6, however, increase the uptake of bisphosphonates.
Another resident, MycoLogics (www.mycologics.com) hopes to help troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from “Baghdad boil,” the cutaneous form of Leishmaniasis. Thousands of afflicted soldiers are treated with Pentosam, an antimony-based drug that causes debilitating fever, headaches, and fatigue, and costs $20,000 per patient.
MycoLogics uses a yeast technology licensed from GlobeImmune to screen compounds that inhibit an essential protozoan enzyme. A vaccine against Leishmaniasis also is being developed. Vaccines for other fungal infections such as Aspergillosis and Cryptococcosis that attack immunocompromised patients are in the pipeline.
Also targeting cancer, Caveo Therapeutics (www.caveotherapeutics.com) is still in its infancy. The company focuses on tyrosine kinase receptors to treat blood cancers. The company’s protein inhibitors are aimed at the Mer receptor expressed by leukemia and lymphoma cells. When the Mer signal is blocked, cancer cells become more sensitive to chemotherapy. Caveo’s inhibitors may thus help lower the dose of chemotherapy drugs and reduce side effects. Blocking Mer signals also may prevent relapse in leukemia and lymphoma patients. “There are many drugs now for first-line patients, but not many options for patients who relapse,” points out Rhonda Wallen, director of business development.
Further along in development, Arca Discovery (www.arcadiscovery.com) has completed Phase III trials of its heart attack treatment, bucindolol, and will file an NDA by the end of 2007. The company is also developing a commercial genetic test in collaboration with the Laboratory Corporation of America to aid physicians in prescribing bucindolol. “Bucindolol will be the first cardiovascular drug with a genetic test,” predicts Michael Bristow, M.D., Ph.D., cofounder.
Arca’s drug as well as diagnostic tool is based on its discovery of genetic polymorphisms in two adrenergic receptors that regulate the heart. Bucindolol, which targets these receptors, is the company’s third-generation beta blocker. Patients with certain variants of these receptors benefit strongly from bucindolol, while other variants bring little response or unwanted side effects.
Lohocla Research, whose name is alcohol spelled backwards, used rationale drug design to create DCUK (dichloro diphenyl ureido kynurenate ethyl ester). This product treats pain and alcohol dependence by targeting both NMDA receptors and voltage-sensitive sodium channels. In appropriate animal models, DCUK reportedly reduces pain as well as alcohol-relapse behavior.
Lohocla’s first clinical trials of DCUK will be for patients experiencing chronic pain due to cancer or diabetic neuropathy. “No one else has a drug that targets NMDA and sodium channels in the periphery and not in the central nervous system,” notes Dr. Tabakoff, who is also CEO of the company and chair of pharmacology at UCHSC.
Consequently, DCUK should not cause sedation like current pain drugs that cross the blood-brain barrier. “We’re talking to large pharma companies,” states Dr. Tabakoff, “and are being taken seriously.”
Providing the Right Environment
Since the Bioscience Park Center incubator opened, its tenants have created 400 new jobs. To help current and future residents “we will continue to provide an environment for them to grow and resources and advisors to guide them,” says Farnham. One of the latest endeavors, for instance, is the creation of Fitzsimons BioBusiness Partners, a group of seasoned investors and entrepreneurs. They volunteer their time to help new companies improve their business plans and find seed money to move scientific discoveries into the proof-of-concept stage.