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HCC nurturing young biotech companies

December 15, 2008|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU

Meena Chandok has long been fascinated by the "language of cells," as they talk to one another in plants as a way to grow and fend off disease.

Now, having lost her father and several other relatives to cancer, Chandok's research is moving in a new direction -- how human cells communicate.

"And how that might be useful in detecting the disease at a very early, presymptomatic stage," she said.

Fusheng Guo worked at the National Institutes of Health doing medical research for 10 years until seven months ago, when he began purifying tiny solutions of proteins for sale to other health researchers.

Chandok and Guo each have launched their own life science companies, working in labs at the Technical Innovation Center at Hagerstown Community College.

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In all, there are five such firms at the center.

They are among the first in a wave of new biotech companies that HCC and Washington County officials foresee coming, creating many higher-paying jobs here.

"Our research has shown that biotech companies like to cluster around one another, so it's very important for us to start to grow our own biotech companies here in Washington County," said Tim Troxell, executive director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission.

"And, as they grow and as they flourish, then we'll have a greater ability to attract the medium- and larger-size companies in the biotech industry," Troxell said.

The new wave

The three-story Technical Innovation Center opened in 1994 near the back of HCC's 316-acre campus.

"Back then, we had double-digit unemployment, Mack Trucks was down, Fairchild had just moved out," center manager Chris Marschner said. "The center's original purpose was to help the manufacturing sector become more competitive worldwide, develop technologies.

"But, over time, we morphed into more advanced technologies. ... And now, we have moved to the next level, which is life science, which is the new wave."

Throughout the years, the center has been "kind of the economic development arm of HCC with respect to commercial development," Marschner said. "Our mission is to help start-up, technology-based firms grow and survive and thrive in their formative years."

The center rents offices and/or labs to these young companies, providing business and attorney-type consultation as well as helping land research grants for their work.

Now, the center rents space to 22 fledgling companies -- including the five biotechs. A $1.3 million addition, paid for by the county government and Maryland, contains specialized laboratories for biotechs.

The addition, which opened early this year, contains seven large private labs, one lab that can be used by any of the companies, and four other rooms that Marschner calls "expansion spaces."

The common-use lab contains such expensive equipment as centrifuges that can spin refrigerated chemical samples as fast as 25,000 revolutions per minute, an "extremely high-end" freezer that can store test cultures at temperatures as low as minus 80 degrees Farenheit and specialized cabinets for working with noxious fumes such as formaldehyde.

There's an autoclave that heats water to 230 degrees Farenheit -- 18 degrees hotter than its boiling point -- to super-sterilize petri dishes or waste "you want to render biologically inactive," Marschner said.

The $100,000 worth of equipment in the common lab, plus the $150,000 worth spread out among all the other labs, is far more than any of the young scientific companies could afford just starting out, he said.

But "things that are specific to each company's needs, that's on them," he said.

The sophistication helps give the labs a federal "Biological Safety Level 2" rating, expanding the kinds of materials that can be studied there.

Some of the labs at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md., are rated BSL4, the highest level of biocontainment precautions. USAMRIID is the only publicly owned facility in Maryland and one of the few nationwide that has this rating.

By contrast, HCC's biotech labs "are designed for agents that do not pose a direct human threat," Marschner said. "If something got emitted into the air, it wouldn't hurt anybody.

"We obviously have noxious fumes here, but those fumes do not pose a health or safety issue to the outside world. An accidental emission from a BSL4 laboratory, which we are not, would pose a significant health and safety issue.

"What we're dealing with at HCC's labs is probably E. coli, which probably doesn't pose a threat to anyone up here."

A matter of space

Almost all of the space in HCC's biotech labs has been rented since the center opened in March. The tenants, who employ about 10 people in all, are young biotechs who came mostly from Washington's suburbs, Marschner said.

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