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Innovation Delaware: Bioscience

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In 1991, CB Research and Development was founded in a 2,000-square-foot facility to synthesize specialized chemical compounds for drug-makers. There were three employees. That same year, Incyte was founded in Palo Alto, California, to focus on genomics. After going public in 1993, the company added drug discovery to its business. 

And, oh, how things have changed. 

CB Research and Development — now Adesis — occupies more than 60,000 square feet on two Delaware sites. “We’re a real Delaware story — born and raised here,” says Andrew Cottone, president of Adesis, who began his career with CB Research and Development.

Propelled by the strong sales of its drug Jakafi, Incyte in 2014 moved its headquarters to the former John Wanamaker’s department store in Wilmington.

The two companies in many respects represent Delaware’s vast bioscience sector. 

Helen Stimson

“We have a good community of startup companies that are product-oriented to larger companies like Incyte to supporting organizations like Agilent, which has instruments for biotech,” says Bill Provine, president and CEO of Delaware Innovation Space, located at the former DuPont Experimental Station.

When many people hear the words “bioscience” and “biotech,” they often think of medical devices and pharmaceuticals, says Helen Stimson, president and CEO of the Delaware BioScience Association. “We still have that in Delaware — there’s no doubt about it,” she says. But “one of the largest segments are those companies that are suppliers to the life science industry.” These are the companies that “help make
discoveries happen,” she explains.

Improving Human Health

Sales of Incyte’s Jakafi remain strong. The drug is used to treat people with certain types of myelofibrosis, a rare form of chronic leukemia, and polycythemia vera, a slow-growing blood cancer. Incyte in February announced that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration extended the review period for Jakafi to treat patients with acute graft-versus-host disease who’ve not responded well to corticosteroids.

Meanwhile, Gore’s biopharmaceutical division has released the ImproJect Plunger for pre-filled syringes. The plunger is silicone-free, which eliminates silicone-induced aggregation and particulation to protect sensitive biologics.  

In the future, Cottone predicts, drug discoveries will come from smaller companies. Consider that Kris Vaddi, formerly of Incyte, in 2016 founded Prelude Therapeutics to focus on treatments for cancers and rare diseases.

On the research side, a University of Delaware team led by Jason Gleghorn, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, recently developed a new method of growing blood vessels. The team embedded human blood-vessel cells in a gel made of collagen, a protein found in skin and joints. One day, these vessels could be used for tissue and organ transplantation.  

The Rise of Contract Research Organizations

Regardless of a company’s size, it’s likely that many use contractors. “Venture capital is telling companies: ‘Don’t invest in bricks and mortar. Invest in ideas,’” Cottone says. 

Adesis, now a wholly owned subsidiary of Universal Display Corporation, is a contract research organization (CRO) providing support for early proof-of-concept projects, medicinal chemistry, lead optimization, custom syntheses and process development. 

“We see ourselves as a strategic partner,” Cottone says, “not just a chemistry supplier.” Universal Display Corp., which acquired Adesis in 2016, has allowed Adesis to run independently and remain on the fast track, he says.

Adesis is not the only Delaware-based CRO on the move. Dr. Benjamin Chien founded QPS in 1995 after working for DuPont Pharmaceutical. Today, QPS Holdings LLC, a global CRO with eight subsidiaries, and QPS LLC, the largest of the subsidiaries, are headquartered in Delaware. QPS LLC supplies laboratory services in bioanalysis, drug metabolism, and pharmacokinetic and transitional medicine.

Ben Hsu

QPS’ clients are outsourcing research and development work for both preclinical and clinical studies, explains Ben Hsu, chief administrative officer of QPS Holdings and general manager of QPS. This year, QPS announced the three-fold expansion of its translational medicine unit in Delaware to meet the growing demand for gene-therapy treatments. 

New to the CRO space is Seven Star Pharmaceutical Services, which uses solid state chemistry/materials science and engineering principles to solve drug-development problems.

Sathyanarayana Reddy Perumalla, who’s worked for large regional companies, founded Seven Stars Pharmaceutical Services in January to capitalize on what he saw as a trend in biosciences. “In the future, outsourcing is going to grow,” he says. “I could find another job with a company — that’s not a problem — but with all the knowledge that I have, why shouldn’t I have the company?”

Supportive Environment for Startups

Reddy Perumalla

Perumalla has laboratory space in North Wilmington, but he also uses analytical equipment at the University of Delaware.

Provine says such arrangements are creating a more supportive environment for startups. His Delaware Innovation Space — a science and technology start-up incubator, accelerator and research institute — was developed in 2017 in partnership with the state of Delaware, DuPont and the University of Delaware.

The University of Delaware’s STAR Campus is growing on 272 acres once occupied by Chrysler’s assembly plant. It’s an appropriate location.

Stimson says Delaware’s academic arena is a hotbed for research. The Delaware IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) includes the University of Delaware, Delaware State University, Christiana Care Health System, Delaware Technical Community College, Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children and Wesley College. Delaware has so far received $229 million in biomedical research funding through the Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program, which seeks to build research capacities in states with historically low levels of National Institutes of Health Funding.

“We have a much more substantial infrastructure now,” Provine says. “We’re well positioned to attract, maintain and grow companies.”

The Nexus of Bioscience Research

John Koh

Delaware’s preeminent researchers in bioscience are also connected by the Delaware Biotechnology Institute (DBI), which works with universities, colleges, health systems and companies ranging from startups to multinationals. “We provide state-of-the-art resources to support research in the life sciences,” says John Koh, DBI’s director. “This includes highly specialized equipment such as genome sequencers and high-end microscopes — things that require a dedicated staff to run.”   

Another component of DBI’s mission is to attract top talent in the life sciences to Delaware. The institute’s former director, Kelvin Lee, came to Delaware from Cornell University and now heads NIIMBL (the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals), a consortium between academia and industry that is headquartered in Delaware.  

DBI’s next move is a physical one: to space on the University of Delaware’s STAR Campus, which it will share with NIIMBL and a new academic program in the pharmaceutical sciences.

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