January 1, 2017 (Vol. 37, No. 1)

Industry Watch: Boehringer Ingelheim Layoffs

Boehringer Ingelheim is close to batting 1,000—as in the number of U.S. jobs eliminated during 2016.

The company on December 1 confirmed it had cut 244 additional U.S. jobs, five months after axing 725 U.S. positions. Nearly one-quarter of the total job cuts, 230, were positions based at Boehringer Ingelheim’s U.S. headquarters in Ridgefield, CT.

Among the latest layoffs, Boehringer eliminated 120 Ridgefield-based positions at its Small Molecule Discovery Research unit. The company is consolidating small-molecule research in Vienna and Biberach, Germany, while shutting units in Ridgefield and Milan, Italy.

Boehringer Ingelheim signaled its intent to get leaner in November 2015, saying it would spend E11 billion ($11.69 billion) on R&D through 2020. The figure includes €5 billion ($5.3 billion) to be assigned to preclinical R&D, and €1.5 billion ($1.6 billion) to be spent on external R&D partnerships—which already account for about half the programs in the early and middle stages of the company’s pipeline. The E11 billion averages E2.2 billion ($2.34 billion) a year, down from E3.004 billion ($3.19 billion) spent in 2015—reversing a year-over-year 13% R&D increase from E2.654 billion ($2.82 billion) in 2014.

“A key element of the new strategy is an increased focus on collaborations with external partners, while maintaining strong internal R&D capabilities,” Boehringer said back then.

The company insisted the latest job cuts will allow it to boost R&D in oncology, saying a new Ridgefield-based cancer immunology discovery research group will begin in 2017. “This new group will result in approximately 35 new positions in Connecticut,” Boehringer Ingelheim said in a statement.

Discovery & Development: Robots Have Feelings, Too

Sensitive and responsive to the presence of scientists, the NiCoLA-B drug discovery robot safely occupies a shared workspace, swinging into action while sparing its human collaborators any roundhouse blows. Unlike most robots, NiCoLA-B can slow or even stop if it detects a change in its operating environment or if it encounters even the slightest resistance.

Built by HighRes Biosolutions and recently deployed by AstraZeneca, the motion- and load-sensing NiCoLA-B can test up to 300,000 compounds a day. (Operating at this rate, AstraZeneca’s robots will test 40 million chemicals each year.) NicCoLA-B uses sound waves, not pipettes, to move potential drugs, droplet by droplet, from storage tubes to individual wells on assay plates. Then, it adds droplets of cells or biochemical solutions. Finally, it oversees the interactions between the contents of the wells, checking for activity that might indicate a promising new drug.

As a drug discovery robot, NiCoLA-B illustrates a remarkable phenomenon: Drug discovery applications account for the largest share of the global lab automation market. This phenomenon was noted by Research and Markets, which attributed the size of drug discovery segment to the need for high-throughput screening and reduced time-to-market in biotech and pharma. Research and Markets estimates that the global lab automation market, currently worth $3.92 billion, will reach $5.48 billion by 2021.

AstraZeneca is deploying a drug discovery robot that can safely share its workspace with scientists, so that it needn’t be sequestered behind glass walls. The robot, built by HighRes Biosolutions, is designed to be both collaborative and configurable.

Genomics & Proteomics: Charles River Goes “All In” on Genome Editing

Through a licensing arrangement with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Charles River Laboratories (CRL) launched end-to-end services that utilize the CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing system. This new service will allow CRL to offer customers custom in vivo and in vitro genome editing, with the hope that they will be able to develop more translational research models for basic science researchers, as well as the burgeoning biopharmaceutical industry.

Iva Morse, Ph.D., corporate vp of global research models and services at CRL, told GEN that “our customers will be using this technology both as a research-based tool and to advance their discovery applications. We will support them in their efforts by creating genetically engineered cell lines and animal models for them.”

CRL has developed significant global partnerships over the years with key groups for in vivo model creation services, which should allow for a smooth transition into the genome-editing arena.   

“Utilizing the CRISPR-Cas9 platform, Charles River clients can work with a single provider for both the in vivo and in vitro phases of their research,” Dr. Morse noted. “Working with us, clients can generate custom cell lines for early, exploratory discovery research, as well as generate in vivo pharmacology models, produce those models, and then use our Discovery Services offering to place those models in in vivo studies.”

The mouse ENCODE project, part of the ENCODE, or ENCyclopedia Of DNA Elements, program is supported by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). ENCODE is building a comprehensive catalog of functional elements in the human and mouse genomes. [Darryl Leja, NHGRI]

Bioprocessing: Synthetic Promoters Promise to Boost Mammalian Cell Platform’s Yields

Synpromics agreed to collaborate with Sartorius Stedim Cellca to evaluate and test its customized synthetic promoters with Sartorius’ mammalian production cell platform.

“Synthetic promoters are DNA sequences that do not exist in nature,” explained David Venables, Ph.D., CEO, Synpromics, “and which are designed to regulate the activity of genes, controlling a gene’s ability to produce its own uniquely encoded protein.

“Our synthetic promoter technology has been developed to increase the yields of recombinant proteins produced by these stable cell lines which has a benefit in cost of goods reduction for biopharmaceuticals,” Venables told GEN.

Cellca has developed the Cellca CHO Expression Platform for the production of biologicals using CHO cells consisting of a proprietary cell line, growth medium, expression cassettes, and fed-batch process. The company said they have developed a panel of CHO-specific synthetic promoters, using their PromPT™ platform, designed and selected for optimized expression of recombinant proteins.

 “The majority of recombinant proteins, including monoclonal antibodies, are produced using the CHO system,” Venables said. “We believe that the combination of Cellca’s CHO bioprocessing platform with Synpromics’ synthetic promoters will provide a much more efficient production system. We’re aiming for significantly higher levels of product being achieved which will increase capacity while reducing production costs.”

“We are delighted to be working with Synpromics on this exciting project,” added Christoph Zehe, Ph.D., head of technology development at Cellca. We believe it will offer significant benefit to our clients in being able to provide a superior production system for biological products.”

Separately, Sartorius Stedim Cellca announced that the company purchased property of more than 6,000 square meters at Ulm’s Science Park III at Eselsberg to build a laboratory and office complex. The new facility, which will approximately double the company’s space, is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2019. So far, Sartorius Stedim Cellca has been located in a rented building in Laupheim.

“Our new site’s proximity to universities and research institutes in Ulm’s Scientific Park offers an excellent environment to promote our growing business for which we are also seeking additional highly qualified staff,” said Hugo de Wit, managing director.

Molecular Diagnostics: Good Start Genetics Ends 2016 with Two Big Marketing Deals

Good Start Genetics is making good on its pledge to democratize genetic testing. Two deals finalized late last year show the company’s commitment to making genetic testing more accessible.

First, in November the company inked a deal with Amazon, which will carry its VeriYou carrier screening test for cystic fibrosis and spinal muscular atrophy. It is anticipated that the convenience of Amazon and the price point ($149) will increase awareness and adoption of carrier screening.

“We think the main barriers to access and awareness are affordability and reach. Given our cost advantages in sequencing and breadth of reach, we are able to reach more of the 62 million women who should be offered screening for cystic fibrosis and spinal muscular atrophy,” Jeffrey R. Luber, president and CEO of Good Start Genetics, explained to GEN.

Then, in December, Roche Diagnostics agreed to offer Good Start Genetics’ GeneVu carrier screening test service in conjunction with its Harmony™ noninvasive prenatal test service to obstetricians and general practitioners providing care to pregnant women.

Luber summed up Good Start Genetics’ efforts by explaining “There is broad opportunity to couple genetic sequencing technologies and clinical expertise to provide health information to families. There are many genetic disorders for which early detection and intervention can have broad positive impact on individual outcomes while yielding societal savings. We believe testing for these disorders can be offered widely through low cost, high-quality testing like ours and unique business models that give families and physicians greater access to genetic information of importance to family health.” 

Genetic sequencing technology is being applied to advance prenatal screening for cystic fibrosis and spinal muscular atrophy. [gilaxia / Getty Images]

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