Wednesday, February 23, 2011

VA Assembly Honors Henrietta Lacks

From the Virginia Pilot:

Va. legislators honor woman whose cancer became a cure

After six decades of obscurity, Henrietta Lacks was honored Tuesday by the Virginia General Assembly for the revolutionary advances in medicine made possible by her harvested cancer cells.

Watching from the gallery were surviving family members, many of whom lack health insurance as biomedical companies make millions from her legacy.

A doctor from the medical school where the saga began acknowledged that the case raises difficult issues of medical ethics.

Lacks was born in 1920 and raised by her grandfather on a tobacco farm in Clover, a crossroads in Halifax County where her ancestors had toiled as slaves. She married in 1941 and moved to Baltimore.

In 1951, she died of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where doctors – following the common practice of the day – had taken samples of her tumor without asking permission of Lacks or her family.

The cells, it turned out, had an incredible ability to divide and replenish themselves indefinitely, creating a line that has been used worldwide in medical research. HeLa cells, as they are known – an abbreviation of Lacks’ first and last names – contributed to the invention of the first effective polio vaccine by Jonas Salk and treatments for cancer and AIDS.

Lacks’ family didn’t learn the full story of her monumental contribution to medicine until publication last year of the widely praised book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot.

They listened Tuesday as Del. Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, sponsor of a resolution commemorating Lacks in observance of Black History Month, called her story “a source of pride and celebration not just for African Americans but for all mankind.”

Among those at the presentation and a news conference was Lacks’ son David Lacks, 63, a part-time truck driver in Baltimore with no health insurance.

He and other family members have struggled to make sense of a system in which corporate medicine benefited handsomely from their ancestor’s legacy while they scraped by.

“It would be nice if we could get some compensation,” he said.

Dr. Daniel Ford, vice dean for clinical investigation at Johns Hopkins, said “it has taken too long for Johns Hopkins to recognize the contribution of Henrietta Lacks.”

But any financial payment to the family by the hospital would be a “bad precedent,” Ford said, noting that Johns Hopkins gave the cells away to other researchers. It now pays $100,000 a year to companies that produce HeLa cells for research at Hopkins.

The compensation issue is “a very complicated question,” he said. “As a society we’re all still trying to work that out.”

Is Randal J. Kirk Biotech's Best Investor?

"This morning, Forest Laboratories announced plans to buy anti-depressant maker Clinical Data for $30 per share, plus a $6 dollar payout contingent on sales of the company’s drug, Viibryd. I wanted to get this story — a portrait of Clinical Data’s main backer, billionaire investor R.J. Kirk — out as quickly as possible.

The print story, which I wrote with Robert Langreth, will appear in the next issue of Forbes magazine. The deal pays out less than Clinical Data’s $33.90 closing price on Friday, but still locks in plenty of gains for Kirk, who has been backing the company for years. The full magazine story appears below."
- Matthew Herper

Grand Plans

Investor Randal J. Kirk became very rich making small improvements to old drug classes. Now he and partner Thomas Reed want to change the world.

Biotechnology produces few billionaires. The high costs of drug development mean that most early investors no longer own big stakes by the time a medicine finally gets to market. Randal J. Kirk, a Virginia biotech investor whose net worth FORBES estimates at $2.2 billion, upends this rule. Instead of spreading his bets and taking profits early like most venture capitalists, Kirk bets big on a few small companies and stays the course until a product gets to market. He reaped $1.2 billion in 2007 when he sold his New River Pharmaceuticals and its attention deficit disorder drug to Shire for $2.6 billion. His next big score could come from his biotech company Clinical Data, whose antidepressant Viibryd was approved in January. Its shares have doubled this year on speculation that Kirk will soon sell to a big drug company desperate for new products. Kirk, with common stock, convertible notes and warrants, is sitting on a 52% stake worth over $600 million. [Note: Clinical Data today announced plans to sell to Forest.]

But Kirk says everything he has done in the past pales next to the potential of his latest project: Intrexon, a secretive research-stage company that is working on the hot new field of synthetic biology—basically genetic engineering on steroids. Kirk and his investment fund, Third Security, have poured $200 million into the closely held 180-person company based in Blacksburg, Va., which has no drugs on the market.

“I’ve been a biotech investor for 27 years, and Intrexon is by far the best thing I’ve ever seen,” says Kirk, 56, who raises falcons and composes electronic music on a 7,200-acre cattle farm in rural Pulaski County, Va. He likens Intrexon to “the Google of the life sciences” and predicts that in a decade it could become “the largest, most significant company” in its burgeoning field.

Today’s biotech industry makes modest genetic tweaks to living cells—adding or deleting single genes so bacteria will produce insulin or corn will resist pests, for example. Synthetic biology aims to make much more radical changes and reengineer living cells from the ground up. One goal is to make protein drugs far more cheaply and efficiently than is ­possible today. Another is to transform living cells into tiny molecular factories to make everything from gasoline to ­construction materials. Some scientists even want to create entire new life forms from scratch.

Lots of big scientific names are working in synthetic biology, which so far has produced lots of hype and headlines but few practical breakthroughs. Gene jockey J. Craig Venter, known for sequencing the first human genome in 2000, leads a company called Synthetic Genomics that has a $300 million deal with ExxonMobil to make designer biofuels.

Intrexon has released few details about which products it is pursuing. Its lead drug is only at the earliest stage of human trials. It is so obscure that three prominent synthetic biology researchers contacted by FORBES—including Venter—said they had never heard of it. Kirk shrugs. Among other colossal ambitions, he wants to revitalize the troubled field of gene therapy, make dozens of inexpensive protein drugs and produce better genetically engineered crops that will benefit consumers, not just farmers. The company is also working on biofuels, designer enzymes, bioplastics and unspecified consumer products. Keeping the work secret is part of the plan, Kirk says. “If we were in the business of publishing, we could get the cover of Science magazine any issue we wanted,” he boasts.

The scientist behind Kirk’s mystery company is the 45-year-old molecular geneticist Thomas Reed. He founded Intrexon in 1998 while still completing his Ph.D. and postdoctoral work in cardiovascular genetics at the University of Cincinnati. “I think of him as the Henry Ford of DNA,” says Kirk. “We are all living in his dream.”

By Robert Langreth and Matthew Herper
Forbes Online

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Genzyme CEO on How Biotech Grew in Boston

Henri Termeer quote on how biotech grew in Boston:

"Genzyme and other Boston biotech companies, like Biogen and Genetics Institute, grew here, Termeer told me, because of the presence of top-notch universities and venture capitalists with money to invest. One thing that wasn't here: big pharma companies. Their absence allowed Genzyme and others to hire the best scientists and product development people, and point them at audacious goals. "It was a magnificently pioneering time," Termeer said. The biggest pharmaceutical companies were focused on making "enormous money with small, incremental improvements on their products," and then hawking those improvements with their "enormous marketing power." That created a vacuum in which Genzyme and a handful of other big biotechs grew."
(from the Boston Globe)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Chesterfield Business Tests Building Systems

Bill Wassum's hunch about adding a niche service to C&W Tesco Inc.'s operations in 2003 has paid off.

"I saw it on the horizon," he said about providing the service, called building-systems commissioning, that ensures building systems such as lighting, plumbing and heating, ventilation and air conditioning operate together as intended.

"No one was doing it in this area. I thought we should go after it."

Adding the niche service has meant hiring more workers and increasing sales at the Chesterfield County-based business.

Twenty employees — eight in the past three years — have been hired since 2003. "And we are keeping them busy," Wassum said.

The company, which also provides testing and balancing of building systems, grew 300 percent in sales between 2003 and 2009.

Much of that growth came from adding building-systems commissioning services. But part of the increased revenue is a result of the company's in-house training program, Wassum said.

"We have positioned ourselves trainingwise and philosophywise to take advantage of the market. We have worked hard on seeing problem jobs to the finish."

Bob Randall, energy manager for Stafford County Public Schools who also did testing and balancing of HVAC systems for 20 years, describes C&W Tesco as "an old-school company."

"They do very good quality work, and they are very easy to get along with," he said.

Bob Fagel, senior project general manager for Centennial Contractors Enterprises Inc. in Reston, looks to C&W Tesco to resolve issues he might have regarding building systems. Centennial is working on a contract at Fort Lee.

"They are very professional in everything they do with us," Fagel said. "We look at them as part of our team when it comes to working on mechanical projects with the government. They are very much responsible for some of the success we have had here at Fort Lee."

Providing employee training is key for C&W Tesco, Wassum said.

"We have a class for employees every two weeks. We teach from the technician's training manual," he said. "We have managed to certify all but six employees."

Certification will become even more important in the years ahead. The National Environmental Balancing Bureau and the Associated Air Balancing Council will require that every job have at least one certified technician on site beginning in 2012, Wassum said.

"We have been doing that since 2003," he said.

Ray Burroughs, estimator for Atlantic Constructors in Chesterfield, uses C&W Tesco for tough projects. "They are reliable, and their estimating is always on time," he said. "They provide quality proposals."

C&W Tesco's clients include federal, state and local governments as well as retail, commercial and industrial companies. The firm does 90 percent of its work in Virginia but has taken jobs across the country and also in Warsaw, Poland.

"We are certified worldwide," Wassum said.

He thinks biotechnology will become a growing market for C&W Tesco, which recently became involved with the Virginia Biotechnology Association.

The biotechnology corridor from Tidewater through Charlottesville is a big market for testing, he said.

Two of the company's employees recently completed classes offered by the National Science Foundation in a type of biotechnology testing. They also have taken classes in the testing of fume hoods, which can detect toxic gases.

"We are currently getting our certification in that," Wassum said.

The company is exploring the market demand for its biotechnology services overseas.

"We will go anywhere that we are qualified to do the work," Wassum said.

Wassum started the company in 1983 with Carol Comstock as C&W Air Balancing, providing testing and balancing of HVAC systems. Comstock left C&W in 1984.

Tom Howard became an owner in 1995 after C&W merged with his Virginia Test & Balance company. John Papazian did the same in 2004 when his company, Tesco, merged with C&W, and the company changed its name to C&W Tesco.

By Joan Tupponce
Richmond Times-Dispatch

WVA Steps Up Recruiting Efforts

Maryland and Virginia are always competing with each other for big-name technology companies to locate to their states.

Now, West Virginia may be jumping into the fray.

A West Virginia economic development organization has hired CSC, a Falls Church, Va.-based IT solutions and services firm, to bring more biometrics companies to the state. And the organization recently devised a plan to increase its bioscience industry.

CSC, which usually gets hired to provide tech solutions and services to commercial and government customers, will spend the next 18 months developing a biometrics and identity program for TechConnectWV, a not-for-profit group that’s trying to bring more technology companies to West Virginia.

The program, which is being run by CSC’s Identity Labs in Fairmont, W. Va., is expected to advance the state’s identity management industry and spur job growth, intellectual property development and sustainable business.

Much of the work will be done with the newly formed Biometrics Innovation Institute Program, which is also working to accelerate the biometrics industry in West Virginia. As part of this contract, CSC will help put together a grants program to help give the industry a jumpstart.

TechConnectWV will also work on growing the bioscience industry in West Virginia. The organization’s plan is to continue growing academic-based research, advance biotech clusters by strengthening bonds between research universities and industry, improve the biotech workforce and enhance the infrastructure to help entrepreneurs grow their businesses.

Washington-area economic development leaders aren't too worried just yet.

Virginia officials, in fact, say they welcome the competition from its westward neighbor. The Virginia Biotechnology Organization even helped launch the Bioscience Association of West Virginia in 2009.

"A growing and vibrant life science industry in the Mountaineer State is beneficial to her neighbors as it means more companies, more research dollars and a wider pool of talented workers here in the Mid-Atlantic region," said Mark Herzog, executive director of the Virginia Biotechnology Association.

When it comes to competing with big biotech hubs around the country, three states are better than one, according to Herzog.

"This is critical if Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia hope to compete with the larger clusters in Boston and San Francisco," he said.

West Virginia is ripe for a biometrics industry with the presence of several government biometrics programs, including the Defense Department’s Biometrics Task Force/Biometrics Fusion Center, the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services division and the National Science Foundation’s Center for Identification Technology Research.

West Virginia's biotech industry grew 23.2 percent between 2001 and 2008, with 160 bioscience companies calling West Virginia home, according to figures from the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

Virginia, however, had 981 bioscience companies, growing 55.2 percent between 2001 and 2008, according to BIO.

Maryland’s industry grew 43.6 percent with 1,271 companies.

CSC says its clout in the industry and global reach could help immensely.

"Drawing on our broad range of identity experience with public and private sector clients worldwide and our unique understanding of the West Virginia biometrics community, CSC is ideally suited to provide the insight and expertise needed to successfully implement this program," said Aaron Fuller, president of CSC’s North American Public Sector Enforcement, Security and Intelligence Group.

The company did not reveal how much TechConnectWV is paying for its work on this endeavor. CSC has had a West Virginia presence for nearly seven years.

The company relocated its Identity Labs from Camp Hill, Penn., to West Virginia in 2008 to be closer to the federal government’s presence in the I-79 High Technology Corridor.

By Tania Anderson

EVMS Creates Living Rendition of the Google Logo

Hypothesis: it is possible to create "living art" using live bacteria that have absorbed food colouring

This amusing video shows how cell biology professor Dr Edward Johnson and his PhD student, Clayton Wright, from the Eastern Virginia Medical School were able to grow a 'living' Google logo in their microbiology lab as part of the Demo Slam competition.

This video reminds me of my undergraduate years when I was working towards my degree in microbiology. One of the experiments I did was to culture phospholuminescent bacteria from the gills of fish captured in the Puget Sound. After I had a pure culture, I decided I wanted to have some fun by drawing a picture, entirely of bacteria, on a petri plate. After the bacteria multiplied, that picture glowed in the dark. Like the scientists in the video, my "bacterial artwork" worked beautifully on the first try.

How the "Living Google Logo" experiment was done: E. coli bacteria BL21 LysS is a laboratory strain that is harmless to humans but very useful for growing specific genes used in studies of cancer and AIDS. These bacteria are commonly used as microscopic factories to produce millions of copies of these genes which are then used in experiments.

To do this experiment, the scientists placed the bacteria into four small test tubes containing growth medium and added a small amount of common commercially available food colourings, one colour per tube for each of the four Google colors. After culturing the bacteria for four hours in the colored medium, investigator Clayton Wright used a sterile Q-tip to "plate" each population of the colored E. coli onto a Petri dish containing bacterial growth medium in agar. (Agar is a starch that hardens -- similar to gelatin -- to support growth of organisms like bacteria on a solid platform.) Clayton placed the bacteria on the agar surface in the Google logo style.

The scientists' primary concern was that the colouring would diffuse out from the bacterial colonies and not make a coherent Google logo. But after an overnight incubation, they found that did not happen. The coloring stayed with the bacteria quite well, and the Google logo grew out very nicely. They anticipated having to repeat this experiment many times to get it right, but it came out beautifully on the first try.

From: Punctuated Equilibrium

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

MD & VA in Top Three AP Scores

The top 10 states with the greatest proportion of their seniors from the class of 2010 having at least one successful AP experience were: Maryland (26.4 percent), New York (24.6 percent), Virginia (23.7 percent), Connecticut (23.2 percent), Massachusetts (23.1 percent), California (22.3 percent), Florida (22.3 percent), Vermont (21.8 percent), Colorado (21.4 percent) and Utah (19.2 percent). More: