UTMB courting the private sector

Partnerships seen as means to grow biodefense research

By: PURVA PATEL
The Houston Chronicle
May 26, 2004, Wednesday

The research is there. The funding is there. Now, the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston is working to attract businesses to what it hopes is the start of a biodefense industry in the Houston region.

UTMB is already home to a research center that develops drugs and vaccines to fight some of the world's deadliest viruses and biological weapons and is in the midst of a $167 million expansion.

Now the university is starting talks with companies to help speed development of its research into usable drugs and vaccines, officials said at a media briefing Tuesday.

The university has met with Dow Chemical Co. and GE Healthcare to identify possible research for development.

Also, UTMB, the U.S. Army and GE are talking about developing a vaccine for Rift Valley fever virus, a mosquito-borne virus common in Africa.

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the National Institutes of Health has been pushing researchers to speed development of drugs.

One way is to partner with private companies.

"NIH has told these institutions not to do business as usual," said David Gorenstein, UTMB associate dean for research.

It usually takes 10 or more years to develop drugs and tests before they're ready for market, but with the help of the commercial sector, UTMB hopes to shorten the waiting time.

A shorter development time means the government can start stockpiling the necessary drugs and vaccines.

The university already has a growing reputation as a hub for bioterror research with a biosafety level 4 laboratory on campus.

Last September, the National Institutes of Health granted UTMB $48 million to develop drugs, treatments and tests for anthrax and infectious diseases.

A month later, the federal government gave UTMB's Center for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases $110 million to build the Galveston National Laboratory, which will house more research on Ebola, the West Nile virus and other viruses.

Gorenstein's own biotechnology company, Galveston-based AptaMed, spun off from work in UTMB labs on chemically modified DNA.

UTMB partnered with Fremont, Calif.-based Ciphergen BioSystems last year to develop tests and technology to diagnose infectious diseases.

Ciphergen also plans to locate its headquarters for its new diagnostics division in Austin this year and place a satellite lab at UTMB.