Texas A&M University was one of three entities awarded a contract from the U.S. government last week to develop a national biosecurity center.
Texas A&M University was one of three entities awarded a contract from the U.S. government last week to develop a national biosecurity center. The university is the only academic institution to be given a contract, the other two going to pharmaceutical companies in North Carolina and Maryland.
The $285 million contract, the largest of the three awarded, includes $175 million from the U.S. government, $20 million from Texas A&M University, $40 million from the state of Texas and $40 million from academic proposal partners that backed A&M during the 2011 application process, according to the Austin American Statesmen.
“It’s generally viewed not only as a game changer for our area, but for the state,” Mike Pishko, a professor of biomedical engineering at A&M and the director of the National Center of Therapeutic Manufacturing, said about the potential economic impacts of the center.
The center will develop vaccines and other therapies as well as offer training in areas related to the pharmaceutical industry, said Vice Chancellor for Strategic Initiatives and principal investigator for the center Dr. Brett Giroir.
A major focus of the center is pandemic flu preparedness, with the goal of being able to develop and manufacture 50 million doses of vaccine within four months of a pandemic flu outbreak, says Giroir.
That objective is in direct response to the H1NI, so-called swine flu, vaccine shortages of 2009, said Giroir, an event that put into perspective the need for the U.S. to produce its own vaccines rapidly.
“You can understand that in the event of a pandemic the first instinct of other countries is to nationalize their vaccine capability which would leave the U.S. unprotected,” Giroir said.
The center also works on development of medications and vaccines for agents that could be used in a bioterrorist or chemical attack, like Ebola and anthrax.
Unlike a typical grant that funds a broad proposal, the university will receive specific assignments and orders from the U.S. Department of Health and Human services. Once an objective is given, it’s up to the university to figure out the techniques and methods needed to reach it.
Much of the work the center will be conducting is in the advanced research and clinical development stages of therapies started at pharmaceutical companies and other research institutions. By taking promising fundamental research to the next level, the university hopes to lower cost and increase efficiency of vaccine production.
“When you get to the stage that’s been really the blockade, it would be enormously more expensive and higher risk to do it they way we’ve done it,” Giroir said, referencing the funding of multiple smaller entities.
The university is partnering with GlaxoSmithKline, one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies, to help in the development of therapies. The company was chosen to be a prominent partner in the center’s development based its technological capabilities and cultural atmosphere, Giroir said.
“They demonstrated that they spend a whole lot of money on diseases of high importance, like tuberculosis, that will make no money whatsoever but have a worldwide important,” Giroir said.
While the main purpose of the center is to meet assignments given by the U.S. government, only 50 percent of the center’s capability has to be devoted to government projects, according to the contract, leaving the other half up to A&M’s discretion.
“We have the freedom to do whatever research we want to do in there,” Giroir said. “We just have to be ready if a pandemic occurs to fulfill our obligation.”
A&M plans to open up the center for other universities to use, with Giroir hinting to collaboration with the University of Texas, but declining to give specific names.
Another key objective of the center is offering training opportunities in a variety of fields and education levels, said Pishko, as well as plans to offer short courses and workshops within the next 18 months that would be open to anyone who wants to register. For A&M students, certification programs are is in the works and an internship associated with center facilities is already offered.
Beyond training jobs directly offered by A&M, the center is thought to have an economic impact that could have a statewide effect, said Giroir. GlaxoSmithKline, and likely other partners, will be opening manufacturing and technology jobs associated with the center and support jobs will follow suite, Giroir predicts.
“We’ll start technical and then grow pretty broad, ” Giroir said. A formal economic study on the center’s potential impact is being prepared by A&M.
Bringing more pharmaceutical jobs to Texas could help the state have a greater presence in an industry that is largely dominated by the east and west coast, Pishko said.
“People view this center as really an anchor for keeping a lot of these small companies and discoveries within the state to be commercialized,” Pishko said.