From gene therapies to medical treatments, cutting-edge research finds a home in NC – WRAL.com

April 17th, 2021 1:52 am

By Abbey Slattery, WRAL Digital Solutions

This article was written for our sponsor, the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

For decades, North Carolina has been known as a nerve center for the life sciences industry. In fact, after the creation of the Biotech Center in the 1980s, North Carolina became the first state in the country to have a state-supported entity dedicated to growing the industry.

N.C. Biotech runs a number of programs to support technology and company development, to recruit companies and to connect North Carolina residents to high-paying jobs.

In the years since then, numerous life sciences companies have established a base in North Carolina, including major names like Biogen, BASF, LabCorp and Merck, among others. By committing to the industry early and cultivating a strong university system, the state established itself as a hub and prepared a workforce that rivals that of anywhere else in the country. Now, it's the site of global scientific breakthroughs and game-changing medical advancements.

"North Carolina has really done a good job with creating a flow from the workforce to the industry, and we've continued to grow and expand because of that. We now have a lot of research and development tools, and we have a tremendous amount of manufacturing here," said Laura Gunter, executive vice president at NCBIO. "All of the amenities of North Carolina and climate and education attract people, but then we've done a good job of educating folks and giving North Carolinians an opportunity to work and thrive here."

With a highly trained workforce of over 67,000, 775 diverse bioscience companies and nearly 2,500 companies, the state has created a thriving ecosystem for the industry. In the Triangle region alone, agricultural and biopharma manufacturing companies are developing exciting new advancements with potential for global impacts.

"A company called Pairwise in Durham is focused on using the gene-editing technology called CRISPR, but with plants. They're working on developing more nutrients or better growing capabilities with plants using that CRISPR technology," said Gunter. "They've developed a new variety of leafy green called brassica that's related to Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and kale. It's nutrient-dense and naturally resistant to pests, but apparently, it has a very pungent flavor. What they've done is work on the flavor, while keeping the nutrients and resistance."

"Another major company is Novozymes, and they specialize in industrial enzymes and microorganisms. If you've ever toured any of these facilities where they're doing fermentation, like a beer brewing facility, Novozymes does that on a massive scale with industrial enzymes," continued Gunter. "Those enzymes can be used in everything from pharmaceuticals to food to detergent. They're also working on some things on the agriculture side to improve crop yields through microbes."

Biogen founded in 1978 and one of the world's first global biotechnology companies is another major player that finds a home in Durham. While Pairwise and Novozymes are more focused on the agricultural side of biotech, Biogen is making advancements in pharmaceutical manufacturing and medical research programs. Its active research includes treatments for conditions like multiple sclerosis, spinal muscular atrophy and other serious neurological conditions.

The company announced a $200 million expansion in March to produce gene therapies and other treatments in their project pipeline. It joins Novartis Gene Therapies, which is producing its Zolgensma therapy for spinal muscular atrophy in Durham, alongside Adverum, Audentes, Beam Therapeutics, bluebird bio, Cellectis, Pfizer, Taysha Gene Therapies and more.

The benefit of cell and gene therapies is the treatments are potentially curative. Early applications are for diseases caused by single-gene mutations, and those that are life-threatening. Thanks to these companies, North Carolina will be the place these treatments are produced. The treatments would likely have a global impact on improving the lives of those who suffer.

One specific example is spinal muscular atrophy, which is the loss of nerve cells and the weakening of muscles near the spine. This degenerative disease has previously been a fatal diagnosis for infants.

"The fascinating thing about spinal muscular atrophy treatments, in the case of Biogen and Novartis, they're both game-changing and potentially curative treatments versus just trying to alleviate a symptom," said Gunter. "With the gene replacement therapy that Novartis is using, if it works, then that child could potentially no longer have the disease. If it ends up being a long-term fix, it's pretty miraculous and it's made right here."

The list of companies that develop products and treatments in North Carolina goes on from endoscopy devices at Cook Medical to in vitro products at bioMerieux to injectable drugs at Hospira. Thanks to forward-thinking from the state and organizations like N.C. Biotech, North Carolina is well-equipped to continue being the site of life sciences products and advancements.

"North Carolina has paid attention to reinforcing the entire pipeline starting with idea and proof of concept by a university researcher. Small companies are created from the research, and we help them navigate a bumpy road to success. Then, we work with companies all around the world looking for the right place to manufacture their products," said Doug Edgeton, president and CEO of N.C. Biotech.

"We continue to invest in this innovation infrastructure, and train the talent to do these important jobs. We think it's why North Carolina is a global leader in this field."

This article was written for our sponsor, the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

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From gene therapies to medical treatments, cutting-edge research finds a home in NC - WRAL.com

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