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November 7, 2003

Award helps connect the dots for biotech industry

by Teddi Barron
The cornerstone is set in the infrastructure for advancing Iowa's plant-based biotechnology industry. A new biologics facility at the ISU Research Park is expected to break the logjam blocking the industry's evolution in the state.

The biologics facility will be a pilot-scale, limited production plant for the extraction and purification of plant-based proteins that can be used for pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals and industrial enzymes.

The Iowa Values Fund recently announced an award to Iowa State of $4 million over two years, and another $6 million when funds are available. Coupled with state and federal money in hand, the award provides enough funding to build the 18,000-square-foot, two-story facility.

Construction is expected to start in the spring and take about a year.

The facility will be operated by a private entity and rented to small, experienced biotech businesses with products developed, but not yet FDA-approved.

How it works
A biotech company will deliver to the biologics facility up to a ton of genetically modified grain. The grain will be ground and processed to extract the specialty proteins, which will be the active ingredients in drugs. The proteins will go through a sophisticated purification procedure. The company will end up with a couple of pounds or less of purified protein, the amount needed to conduct the first phase of FDA clinical trials. The FDA requires three-phase testing for all new pharmaceuticals.

ISU Research Park director Steve Carter says companies have shown interest in both operating and using the facility.

The absence of a small-scale biologics production plant has been the bottleneck for developing the plant-based biotech industry in Iowa, said James Bloedel, vice provost for research.

Bloedel said he expects the plant will be a magnet for small biotech companies that don't have the capital to build and operate a biologics facility to test their products.

The facility also will be linked to researchers and students in the Plant Sciences Institute, said institute director Stephen Howell.

Students -- both undergraduate and graduate -- could gain training by working in the facility.

Product commercialization
The new proteomics facility under development in the Roy J. Carver Co-Laboratory will serve as the analytical arm of the biologics facility. Proteomics researchers will be able to identify target proteins (proteins to be purified) in the crude extracts at the biologics facility and monitor the level of purification at various stages in the process.

"The institute has research under way that is in the early stages of developing proteins for this commercial pipeline. We hope to be able to contribute by supplying proteins for the biologics facility," Howell said.

"Our researchers will be able to move much further ahead when the commercial roadblocks are removed," he said. "There are a lot of possibilities for driving this field further forward."

Both Howell and Carter agree that interest in developing a plant-based biotech industry in Iowa will wane unless there are opportunities to commercialize some products.

"We have a limited time frame for this to happen," Carter said. "But right now, in the area of plant-based proteins, Iowa's approach is the most advanced and comprehensive of any state's."

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