Biomedical site under microscope
TAMPA - It's crunch time for Tampa's homegrown biomedical institute, M2Gen, a place with expectations so high, helping to beat cancer is only one goal. Hillsborough County, Tampa and the state have pumped about $45 million in subsidies into this unit of H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute, hoping it would create high-paying jobs and build a biomedical industry here. So far, no such industry has really sprouted up around M2Gen. And, it could face a huge challenge if it loses its biggest financial supporter, the drug giant Merck. Moffitt Chief Executive Officer William Dalton insists the community will see a return on its investment and that M2Gen is set to take off. After four years of collecting, probing and bar-coding 30,000 cancer tumor specimens, the institute is moving into a crucial second stage and will begin using its genetic research to find the right cancer drugs for patients."We're still in the race," Dalton said last week. "We're very, very excited." When Moffitt announced plans for M2Gen in late 2006, it was seen as the breakthrough Tampa needed to get onto the biomedical map. Since then it has been collecting colorectal, breast and other cancerous tissues and studying their genetic signature. Every cell has 30,000 genes, Dalton said. What makes a skin cell different from a brain cell is which genes are turned on and off. The institute also has information on 81,000 cancer patients in its database. The payoff should come from matching the data from tumors with the tens of thousands of patients in M2Gen's database, Dalton said. For example, M2Gen could isolate a thousand colon cancer patients whose genes have the same mutation. Do Merck, Roche or other drug companies have a treatment perfect for people with that mutation? Such personalized medicine could be a powerful tool. So far, Moffitt, Merck and other partners haven't fully capitalized on all the tumor and patient information in M2Gen's freezers and computer databases. M2Gen's headquarters just south of Fowler Avenue has been a high-tech warehouse, where lab technicians bar-code cancer tissue, insert it into inch-long tubes and freeze it at minus-80-degrees Celsius. To really pay off, M2Gen needs to recruit drug companies to run clinical trials based on its cancer data. M2Gen had some success when a cancer research program sponsored a colorectal cancer trial with M2Gen's help. M2Gen's wealth of genetic information helped the trial go from start to finish in less than a year. "That's almost unheard of," Dalton said. "Most trials take two to three years." Still, M2Gen has scored no huge victories, no eureka moments, Dalton acknowledged. Going forward, M2Gen has to navigate a series of challenges that could determine if it ever lives up to its potential in cancer treatment. First, Merck's five-year contract to partner with Moffitt in the project expires in December, and no one knows if the drug giant will renew. Merck has pumped tens of millions of dollars into M2Gen. Ian McConnell, a Merck spokesman, said his company's involvement has been "very informative." But he wouldn't talk about its future at the Tampa tissue bank. "We're in active discussions and it would be premature to say anything more than that," McConnell said. Dalton said M2Gen can survive even if Merck bows out of the partnership. It is talking with other drug companies and research institutes about partnerships, including the big California-based Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute. A second challenge for M2Gen is new competition. A "thundering herd" of hospitals and labs are launching their own cancer tissue banks that could compete for deals with drug companies, said Linda Powers, an M2Gen board member who works for a biotechnology investment fund. M2Gen's head-start gives it an advantage, but it needs to keep on its game, Powers said. Local leaders are counting on M2Gen's success, partly because they awarded millions in public subsidies to it. Hillsborough County put up about $28 million, the state kicked in about $15 million and Tampa contributed $2 million, including the land for the project, M2Gen's website says. Moffitt promised that M2Gen would create 165 high-paying jobs. Government leaders also hoped it would create spin-off companies that could create a biomedical industry in Tampa, instead of an isolated tissue bank. Hillsborough leaders have tried to attract other biomedical centers as well, but some fear Tampa isn't keeping up with similar efforts in Orlando and the Palm Beaches. Hillsborough County, the University of South Florida and the state gave $20 million in incentives to help Draper Laboratory build a small lab in Tampa to study microscopic technologies. And, Hillsborough flirted with attracting Jackson Laboratory, a prestigious genetics lab from Maine, but the deal fell through. M2Gen has come to close to hitting its job target by hiring 150 people, said Dalton, Moffitt's chief executive. However, only 85 of them are employed in Tampa, with the rest spread across hospitals in Florida. It hasn't yet created any spin-off companies. Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said no one expected the economy to crash the way it did, so it's not fair to judge M2Gen yet. Investors are cautious right now and aren't prone to pumping money into risky research. So, M2Gen is on track with its goals, given the state of the economy, he said. For his part, Dalton said the Tampa Bay area needs to invest more in biomedicine if it wants to compete with the likes of Texas and North Carolina's Raleigh-Durham area. And he insists that M2Gen needs more time to reach its potential. "As an entity, M2Gen is young," he said. "Most business analysts I talk to think what we're doing is incredible."
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