Tampa cancer lab has yet to fulfill hype
TAMPA - A Tampa cancer lab that got one of this area’s richest government subsidies, $30 million, is still trying to live up to its early hype and promise. Known as M2Gen, the lab so far hasn’t led to a flowering of high-tech and scientific companies in the area surrounding H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute. And, it recently notified Hillsborough County that it has fallen short of its requirement to create 108 jobs in the county. Still, M2Gen Chief Executive Officer Bill Dalton said it’s on the rise. He’s talking with some 20 pharmaceutical companies about tapping into M2Gen’s unique database of 100,000 cancer patients to find cancer cures. “We’re pleased with our progress,” Dalton said, “but not satisfied.”Few if any local companies got more hype than M2Gen did in the past decade. Moffitt Cancer Center announced in late 2006 that it and drug giant Merck would partner to build a state-of-the-art cancer lab just south of Fowler Avenue near Moffitt. Cancer treatment might never be the same, local leaders said. Instead of guessing at which cancer drug could help a patient, M2Gen would help drug companies find the exact treatment for a patient. For example, a colon cancer drug might work best on patients with a specific genetic mutation. M2Gen’s massive patient database could isolate only those patients with that mutation and eliminate much of the guesswork of treatment. Eventually, Hillsborough County awarded it an incentive package worth $28 million, and Tampa kicked in another $2 million, for total local incentives of $30 million. The state then added another $15 million. Since then, M2Gen has been trying to find its place. It has built an enviable database with information on 100,000 cancer patients and has collected 35,000 specimens of cancer tissue. That gives it a unique and valuable collection of cancer data. However, making money off of it – or commercializing it – has proved tougher than imagined. An early business plan, for example, suggested the discoveries at M2Gen would create separate “spinoff” companies, which could create 352 jobs. So far, Dalton said he’s not aware of any such spinoffs being created. The lab also was to directly create 108 jobs in Hillsborough County by this past December, but it came up 10 jobs short, Dalton acknowledged. That said, Dalton said the lab is striking new deals with drug companies that should lead to more discoveries. Until recently, Merck spent tens of millions bankrolling much of M2Gen’s operations, in exchange for exclusive access to its research and data. Merck chose not to renew its contract recently – seemingly a major blow for M2Gen. But with Merck’s exclusive access now history, Dalton said the lab can offer its research to other pharmaceutical companies. He’s in discussion with some 20 companies that are interested in M2Gen’s cancer database, many of which want to use it to find patients for clinical trials. For example, a certain lung cancer drug might work on only 4 percent of lung cancer patients, who share a genetic mutation. His pitch to the drug’s maker: we can isolate only those 4 percent, so you won’t have to screen the other 96 percent who won’t respond to treatment. Meantime, M2Gen signed a deal in February with a Princeton, N.J., company called Covance, which does clinical trials for many of the nation’s drug makers. Covance will encourage its pharmaceutical clients to use M2Gen’s database. “I get an instant global sales force,” Dalton said of the marketing deal. Hillsborough County leaders are waiting patiently and optimistically for M2Gen to fulfill its potential. Ron Barton, the county’s economic development director, acknowledged that it has missed its job projections, but said it’s hard to put a timeline on when a new technology will score. “We have to have a little degree of faith that timing just can’t be forecast,” Barton said.