December 19, 2009

Biotech Center Opens

David Quick

Partnership transforms rundown mattress factory into research labs

It wasn't a chamber of commerce kind of day for a grand opening, but a couple hundred people still showed up to celebrate what many think will be a key part of Charleston's sunny biotechnology future.

As Friday's deluge began, representatives from the South Carolina Research Authority, Medical University of South Carolina, city of Charleston and a host of other interested parties attended the grand opening of the SCRA MUSC Innovation Center Charleston on Meeting Street near Patrick Veterinary Clinic.

The center – transformed from a dilapidated former mattress factory into a clean, handsome building with laboratories – is expected to attract and support start-up companies that will "commercialize" new drugs and research developed by the Medical University.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and MUSC President Dr. Ray Greenberg said people will look back at the grand opening as the beginning of a vital biotech economy.

"This is the culmination of a dream and lots of efforts. This is a pivotal point in our community's history," Riley said. "... It's easy for communities to move in the same direction with hard work and devotion. To really advance, you've got to pivot and move in a different direction. ... That's what today represents."

While the city has worked hard to make Charleston a "beautiful and livable place" that has attracted a work force of creative people, Riley said the center will provide infrastructure to develop jobs for that work force. The next step will be converting an area north of Spring Street between Hagood Avenue and Lockwood Drive, into a "live/work biotech community" with ties to MUSC.

Regarding the SCRA center, Riley said he's proud the project made good use of an old building, which the city received from the S.C. Department of Transportation as part of the mitigation for the Ravenel Bridge project.

"We're so proud of this place," Riley said. "There's nothing like restoring an old building. It's almost a spiritual, emotional event. It's an adaptive reuse."

Greenberg, who had not been back in the building since a tour of the old mattress factory, said he is "in awe of what happened here," including how fast the transformation happened.

"Here in the shadow of the Cooper River bridge, we all think of a bridge as symbolizing the future of Charleston and what brings together important segments of the community," Greenberg said. "This facility has the same meaning in terms of the economic development and vitality of our community."

He added that he thinks the first four start-ups moving into the facility – Neurological Testing Services, Immunologix Inc., Vortex Biotechnology and Microbial Fuel Cell Technologies – represent "the future of biotechnology in Charleston and beyond."

"They are a tribute to the quality of the amazing work that's going on at the Medical University," Greenberg said.

The innovation center is the first of three projects in a partnership with SCRA, a nonstock, tax-exempt corporation that was started by the state in 1983 with $500,000 and now is self-sufficient. In 2005, the state mandated that three facilities be built in a collaboration of the authority, a state-back research school and a governmental body.

The others will be in Columbia, with the University of South Carolina and city of Columbia as partners, and in Anderson, with Clemson University and Anderson County as partners.

Initial Tenants

Four start-up companies, all created from technology developed at the Medical University of South Carolina, already are slated to be based in the new SCRA MUSC Innovation Center Charleston as of January.

Immunologix has created a technology that allows replication of human antibodies from cells recovered from discarded immune tissue, such as whole blood or tonsils. This technology meets the current need of antibody-based therapeutics through an in-vitro system.

Microbial Fuel Cell Technologies is commercializing the use of microbial fuel cells as emerging waste reduction and alternative energy technology products in the forms of hydrogen and ethanol.

Neurological Testing Services investigates pharmaceutical compounds in models associated with neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, stroke and epilepsy.

**Vortex Biotechnology Corp. **focuses on the development of inhibitors of Pim protein kinases, which are key regulators of prostate cancer and certain leukemias. Vortex designs, synthesizes and evaluates proprietary Pim inhibitors, with the goal of moving an agent into clinical testing for the treatment of cancer.