UTMB wins $48 million grant to develop biodefense project

By Jennifer Dawson
Houston Business Journal
September 15, 2003

The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston has been awarded $48 million to establish a regional center for biodefense and emerging infectious diseases research to fight fatal diseases.

The Department of Health and Human Services announced last week that UTMB is one of eight institutions selected nationwide to share a total of $350 million in grant money over the next five years on this project.

UTMB is the leader of a group of 16 institutions in a five-state region that collaborated to win the grant money, which will be used to study deadly diseases that could possibly be used as weapons by bioterrorists.

"It's very important," says David Walker, chairman of UTMB's Department of Pathology. "It solidifies our stature in this field."

The designation puts UTMB one step closer to being awarded $120 million in federal funding to build a national biocontainment laboratory, Walker says.

UTMB expects to learn this month whether the institution has been selected from among four finalists to build such a facility. The National Institutes of Health plans to fund construction of one or two of these highly specialized laboratories that would focus on diseases, including those resulting from bioterrorism and biological warfare.

One of the four finalists was not selected as a regional center, so Walker says that could mean only three candidates are left in the running to build a national biocontainment laboratory.

If selected to construct a biocontainment facility, UTMB will receive $120 million toward the $160 million to $180 million it will cost to build and equip the seven-story laboratory in Galveston. Scientists would be able to study virtually any material safely within the confines of such a facility, Walker says.

The $48 million in grant money awarded last week will be used to develop ways to treat, diagnose and prevent deadly diseases such as anthrax.

"The purpose of all of this is to build defense," Walker says. "It's not just to build interesting science."

Other area institutions that collaborated to win the regional center are The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, Rice University and the University of Houston.

The fact that these competitors were able to join forces in securing the grant money was remarkable, Walker says. The competing institutions learned at a meeting last August that the National Institutes of Health was looking for a regional, collaborative effort on the proposals.

"If you had been at that meeting, you would have predicted it wouldn't have worked," Walker says. "It turned out to be a wonderful example of collaboration."

UTMB became the lead institution of the group because of its strong work in the field of infectious diseases over the past 17 years, Walker says.

UTMB will open a Biosafety Level 4 Laboratory this fall.

Last fall, the medical branch consolidated its research efforts into an entity called the Center for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases, which is almost identical to the name of the grant it was just awarded. Walker is the center's director.

Other institutions designated as regional centers last week were Duke University; Harvard Medical School; New York State Department of Health; University of Chicago; University of Maryland, Baltimore; University of Washington; and Washington University in St. Louis.

Tech notes

Endovasc Inc. and TissueGen Inc. are combining efforts to develop a specialized cardiovascular stent for the advanced treatment of coronary artery disease.

Montgomery-based Endovasc and TissueGen agreed to co-license certain intellectual property to the joint venture, which is named Endovasc-TissueGen Research Sponsors.

Kevin Nelson, MD, TissueGen's president, will manage a study conducted by TissueGen to fabricate a prototype of the drug-releasing stent.

Endovasc will co-license its patented, time-released drug to the joint venture, as well as purchase a $150,000 convertible promissory note from the entity. That money will be used to develop the prototype stent.

The joint venture will then try to raise $2.5 million from investors to fund clinical trials and bring the product to market.

TissueGen was the first member of a newly-formed Arlington Technology Incubator, which was organized by The University of Texas at Arlington, the City of Arlington and the Arlington Chamber of Commerce.

  • Research shows that spending on information technology, at least in the insurance industry, appears to be on an upswing. Insurance carriers, agents and brokers are budgeting to spend about 14 percent more on packaged applications and software development this year over last year, according to the 4th Annual Software Spending Survey released last week.

The study was conducted by Insurance Networking News, a trade publication targeting senior-level insurance executives.

While carriers report plans to increase spending in the second half of 2003, they are investing more in customized software vs. packaged software.

The companies want to increase Web-enabled applications, improve automating business processes and create extranets for customer access.

The top five areas executives want to address are agent management, policy administration, documenting workflow management, financial reporting and business-to-business e-commerce.

jdawson@bizjournals.com • 713-960-5935