enjamin Schachtman writes for PortCityDaily.com in Wilmington, Delaware, that the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNC), along with the Marine Biology in North Carolina Center (MARBIONC) were recently named as part of the $250 million National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIIMB) initiative. Financed in part by the Department of Commerce, the initiative is aimed at developing biopharmaceutical manufacturing in the United States.
The private-public initiative brings together a consortium of industry leaders, universities and government partners to develop both pharmaceutical products from living cells and the techniques used to manufacture them.
Port City Daily spoke with Dr. Daniel Baden, executive principal of MARBIONC, to learn what the center does and what the initiative means for the area.
“It’s about the chasm of death,” Dr. Baden said. “The philosophy of MARBIONC is building bridges between the university and industry. So many biotechnology discoveries don’t make it across the chasm of death, they go all the way through the research process and just fall to their death and disappear before they become applied technology. So the university research has got to get a little closer to industry, or industry has to get a little closer to the academy.”
The $30,000,000 MARBIONC building, 69,000 sq. ft. of laboratory and meeting space, opened in 2013. Funded in part by the National Institute for Standards and Technology, Dr. Baden says the building grew out of the vision of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
MARBIONC’s role in the development of Brevenal, a leading drug treatment for cystic fibrosis and COPD, is one example of how the new system is working, according to Dr. Baden. The discovery grew out of the MARBIONC’s experiments in culturing and scaling up colonies of algae. Dr. Baden and his team started out with a single culture of algae.
“It dates back to 1958, Bill Wilson from Texas,” he said. “It was at the Florida Department of Natural Resources in St. Petersburg. I went and got a sample in 1973. Well, the first one I put in an icebox, and that didn’t work out too well. So I had to go back and get a second sample. But that’s the one, we’ve cloned it many, many times.”
From that single culture, Dr. Baden and his team have created distinct and proprietary strains, as well as collecting hundreds of other species of algae. Dr. Baden said he asks anyone who works at the UNCW CMS or MARBIONC to keep algae in mind when they travel.
“I tell them, if they’re near any major body of water, on their last day of vacation, take a water bottle, empty it, and scoop up some water and sediment,” he said.
This is just one part of how Dr. Baden and his team have assembled at least 750 different strains of algae. MARBIONC researches have only started analyzing them. Many algae have toxic properties — responsible for the toxicity of “red tides” — the algal blooms that can kill fish and marine mammals. But one particular species contained a chemical with quite the opposite reaction.
“So, we cultured this algae from a red tide in Florida and we were isolating the toxins,” he said. “These are neurotoxins, and they caused a lot of coughing and sneezing, mucus reactions. One of them seemed to act not like a toxin, but like an antidote. We moved on to animal tests, administering alongside toxins and it reduced the reaction. Then we administered it preemptively, as prevention.”
Dr. Baden recalls hearing from a lab tech, “I think you’ve got a cure for cystic fibrosis here.”
“That’s a huge industry, right there, but it doesn’t require the massive manufacturing spaces of traditional industry,” he said. “We could manufacture the materials to supply the entire United States population of cystic fibrosis with medication in an 800 square foot lab.”
Dr. Baden, gesturing to the row on row of Erlenmeyer flasks, added, “You have to keep it mind, we’ve only really looked closely at 30 of these. We’ve just scratched the surface.”