Updated 12 months ago
Over the next few months, four giant freezers will be installed in the new, 100,000-sq.-ft. office building near the University of South Florida’s Tampa campus that houses the offices of M2Gen, a for-profit subsidiary of the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute. Over the next several years, the freezers will fill up with souvenirs of cancer — samples of blood, tissue and tumors — donated by patients from around Florida, the U.S. and internationally. Already, M2Gen has samples from more than 50,000 patients, who enroll through a consortium of oncologists and more than 20 hospitals nationwide.
|Shane Huntsman manages M2Gen’s biorepository operations. The project has two goals: Find new treatments for cancer and create a revenue stream for Moffitt. [Photo: Mark Wemple]|
Lab workers at M2Gen catalog each sample, along with the donor’s medical history and demographic information. Sample by sample, they’re building a database that will eventually comprise millions of biological markers reflecting the genetic makeup of both the cancers and the patients — and the outcomes of treatment.
That database is meant to serve both medical and financial ends.
Future cancer patients who enroll in Moffitt’s Total Cancer Care Study will be able to use it to compare their cancers’ profiles with those on file at M2Gen — and then pursue the most effective treatment, including clinical trials of therapies that show the most promise for their individual cancers.
Jim Utterback, 54, a 32-year veteran of the pharma industry, has founded and operated both research and pharmaceutical companies. He was a senior executive and group president of global ventures for Covance Inc., one of the world’s largest providers of research products and services to biopharmaceutical companies. [Photo: Mark Wemple]
Utterback’s initial business partner is pharma giant Merck, which is investing millions in birthing M2Gen and sustaining it for its first five years. Merck researchers looking to create new cancer treatments will get exclusive access to the database during that time, looking for ways to more narrowly target chemotherapies and for chemical relationships that lead to the development of new drugs.
Utterback explains the business context of the M2Gen effort. The cost of developing and getting approval for a so-called “blockbuster” drug has risen into the billions, he says; the process can take decades. Pharma companies are looking for more narrowly targeted drugs whose effectiveness can be shown sooner. For the companies, he says, it’s a matter of some urgency: Between 2008-13, some $64 billion worth of drugs will lose their patent protections, creating a “cliff” for the drug companies — and the need for replacements to keep revenue flowing.
For Utterback, there’s also some urgency: The database has to show enough promise either for Merck to renew its contract or to attract another pharma partner when Merck’s deal is up. Utterback says he thinks the effort will realize its potential — there’s no other effort under way to build a cancer database on the scale of what M2Gen is attempting. He’s confident that M2Gen will both attract plenty of interest from the pharma community and fulfill another main role — as a bioscience industry development project for the state. Already, say company executives, a number of biotech firms have expressed interest in setting up operations in Tampa, looking to collaborate with M2Gen. “This is a unique thing for the state of Florida,” says Utterback. “It’s really a seed in the soil that’s going to grow.”