Less than two years ago, Arizona counted for little in the bioscience world. Today the state is starting to be noticed, say those who are working to make biotechnology a major economic factor.
The past 18 months have witnessed the establishment of the Translational Genomics Research Institute and several biotech initiatives at the three state universities, including the Arizona Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University.
A 10-year road map to guide biotech development has been formulated. Research partnerships among the genomics institute, universities, Mayo Clinic and other health care entities are taking shape.
Biotech work forcetraining programs are being expanded. And the pace of biotech companies expanding or relocating to Arizona is picking up.
To Phoenix Mayor Skip Rimsza, chairman of the Arizona Bioscience Roadmap Steering Committee, it’s evidence the state’s efforts are paying off.
"I have been overwhelmed by the interest of outside (biotech) entities in Arizona," he said. "Before, we literally were completely off the radar screen. We have gone to at least being considered."
Still, the state has a long way to go to become a bioscience center on the scale of San Diego, and Arizona faces strong competition from other locales that also see biotechnology as a source of future prosperity.
John Murphy, executive director of the Phoenixbased Flinn Foundation, which is playing a central organizing role in Arizona’s bioscience effort, doubts the state will be able to pull off a high-profile coup such as attracting a big pharmaceutical firm anytime soon. But he does expect the volume of federal government grants going to Arizona researchers will increase. And those research projects could spin off start-up companies that might be acquired by bigname firms, he said.
The centerpiece of the emerging biotech industry is the genomics institute, a $100 million public-private partnership formed to "translate" research discoveries into improved treatments and cures for genere lated diseases. Announced in the summer of 2002, the institute has grown from less than a dozen people a year ago to more than 130 scientists and support personnel today, Murphy said.
The institute is headed by Dr. Jeffrey Trent, a renowned genetics researcher who has quickly given the group an international reputation.
In the past year the institute launched a series of initiatives including research collaborations with the Mayo Clinic on melanoma and other cancers and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Scottsdale agreed to a $3 million loan to help the institute and clinic set up a drug development center at the Mayo Clinic in north
Other Translational Genomics Research Institute agreements were signed with a genomic medicine consortium in Mexico to search for cures for genetic diseases that affect Hispanics, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community to explore improved treatments and cures for diabetes, IBM and ASU to supply supercomputers to analyze life science data and the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center to seek treatments and cures for autism.
Ground was broken in June on a permanent headquarters for the institute in downtown Phoenix, which is expected to open late next year. In the meantime, the institute is occupying temporary space in Tempe provided by Banner Health and Quest Diagnostics.
The three state universities also have stepped up their role in the biosciences. ASU has started construction of the $69 million first phase of the biodesign institute, which will develop new biodevices, materials and systems that will enhance human health. The building is expected to be completed next year. Future expansion of the institute will be funded through a $440 million university facilities program approved this year by the Arizona Legislature.
The University of Arizona is working on three research buildings totaling $150 million that will house the Institute for Biomedical Science and Biotechnology, the Mel and Enid Zuckerman Arizona College of Public Health and the UA Medical Research Building. The complex, which is funded from public and private sources, is scheduled for completion by early 2006.
Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff has formed the Institute for Integrative Biotechnology Research and Education, which is conducting research with Translational Genomics Research Institute.
The universities also are cooperating in the $27 million Arizona BioMedical Collaborative, which will be built next to the Translational Genomics Research Institute building in downtown Phoenix and will consolidate their Valley-based health research programs.
In other education initiatives, the Maricopa Community College District has announced a $600,000 program to upgrade biotechnology education and lab facilities at Scottsdale Community College and three other district colleges. And the Phoenix Union High School District is planning a sciencemath magnet high school, which could be located at the Translational Genomics Research Institute campus in Phoenix.
Private companies also are stepping up their investments. The Arizona Department of Commerce has assisted 12 biocompanies to locate or expand in Arizona during the past year. Those companies are expecting to create 1,017 jobs in the next three years with an average annual salary of $55,182 and a total capital investment of $70 million, said Michele Pino, the department’s director of business attraction and development.
Among them are four East Valley companies: Erchonia, a Mesa-based developer of low-power lasers; GenoSensor, a Chandler-based genomic technology firm that is an intellectual property spin-off from ASU and is already looking for expansion space; Express Scripts, a pharmacy benefits management company in Tempe; and Imuno Diagnostic Systems, a British producer of diagnostic test devices, which is setting up its American sales office in Fountain Hills.
Amersham Biosciences, a British company, consolidated operations and added about 50 jobs in Chandler when it acquired Motorola’s life sciences business. And Isagenix, a neutraceutical firm, is moving from Tempe to larger quarters in Chandler.
Another undisclosed company that makes prescription makeup and oils is expected to announce a 40,000-square-foot project in Chandler within a few weeks, said Christine Mackay, economic development specialist for the city.
Bioscience has become a big part of Chandler’s economic diversification strategy, she said.
"It will probably never reach the level we have in semiconductors with Intel and Motorola and Microchip, but it’s definitely an area we are emphasizing," she said. "And we’ve been very successful. We’re almost surprised with our success."
Major hurdles loom in the coming year to keep up the bioscience momentum. One of the biggest will be winning voter approval in November of an amendment to the Arizona Constitution that will allow the state’s universities to take ownership positions in companies that are spun off from university research. Passage of the amendment would encourage more start up companies and increase the revenue the universities could receive from the research they sponsor, said the Flinn Foundation’s Murphy.
Any slow down in the economy could hamper government attempts to support the industry, and legal issues such as negotiating affiliation agreements and securing tax-exempt status will have to be worked through, he said. It will also take time to develop needed lab space and equipment. But such problems aren’t insurmountable, he said.
"It takes time, but I think you will see the research needle move," he said.