Nestled in the foothills above the Salt Lake Valley is the University of Utah and its renowned hospital. The university, its medical school and hospital have been the launching pad for significant biomedical research and discoveries, from artificial organs to cutting-edge genetics.
The University of Utah is a leading medical research institution with a wide net. Just to the south is Utah’s life science business cluster, home to dozens of world-class medical research, device and pharmaceutical companies who are changing the face of modern medicine. Utah’s highly concentrated life sciences cluster has outpaced the nation in its rate of growth and it is now expanding virtually statewide.
Utah has a unique advantage when it comes to medical research: a rich database of genealogical information and residents who are highly motivated to participate in research efforts because it contributes to a more complete record of heritage. The Utah Population Database contains family histories that include medical information like cause of death, incidence of cancer and hospital discharge records for multiple generations of families.
From all of this, numerous Utah companies have spearheaded work in cancer research, medical devices, diagnostics, drug delivery systems, prosthetics and much more.
A Storied History
“Utah is a great state for the life sciences, as witnessed by the growth of life science companies throughout the recession,” says Peter Knauer, COO of the Intermountain Biomedical Association. “Utah outpaced just about all other states for growth in this sector.”
According to a recent report commissioned by the Utah Cluster Acceleration Partnership (UCAP), employment in the state’s life science industry grew by nearly 26 percent from 2001 to 2010, compared to a national rate of just 8.4 percent.
For this strength, Knauer credits not only the U, but also Brigham Young University for “delivering a well-trained workforce and great, innovative technologies.”
The U’s history of innovation dates back decades. In the 1960s, Willem Kolff joined the university and began work on the first artificial heart, which was successfully implanted in patient Barney Clark in 1982. Today, that legacy continues in the work of the Utah Artificial Heart Institute, which is developing ventricular assist devices that can provide full circulatory support for heart failure patients. Many other cardiovascular innovations in Utah have been stimulated by this core of expertise. Coherex Medical, for example, is a Salt Lake City-based multinational medical device company focused on the development of devices that address structural heart disease.
According to a Utah Cluster Acceleration Partnership (UCAP) report on life sciences, Utah is already specialized in four life science sub-sectors: medical devices and equipment; drugs and pharmaceuticals; research, testing and labs; and biomedical distribution.
Looking to the future, Knauer says personalized medicine is a promising arena in Utah, due to the renowned genomics sector in the state. “Personalized diagnostics will allow providers to drill down and find the particulars of a patient’s condition and then tailor a personalized course of therapies,” he says.
“Many companies are finding that places like China and India don’t provide the quality required for medical purposes,” says Knauer. But Utah offers a low-cost, educated and ethical workforce as well as robust transportation and distribution networks — as companies like Edwards Lifesciences, Merit Medical, BioFire Diagnostics and Amedica have already discovered.
BYU also devotes significant resources to bio-medical research, focusing on molecular diagnostics, cancer-related drugs, Alzheimer’s disease risk factors and much more. In the 1990s, BYU Professor Daniel Simmons was instrumental in the discovery of the COX-2 gene and enzyme, paving the way for development of the anti-inflammatory drug Celebrex.
Indeed, Utah’s life science industry has developed into a $15-billion-a-year sector, says Knauer. Many of the technologies developed here are significant but often unheralded. “Companies in Utah are responsible for many of the underlying medical technologies used worldwide,” he says.
Merit Medical, for example, both develops and manufactures disposable medical devices for use in cardiology, radiology and endoscopy. The company employs more than 2,600 workers worldwide, many at its five Utah-based manufacturing facilities.
Another company, Edwards Lifesciences, is a global presence in the field of heart valves and hemodynamic monitoring. Edwards Lifesciences is headquartered in California but maintains a large and growing facility in Utah for research, engineering and manufacturing of medical devices.
Utah researchers have also been pioneers in the realm of genetics and molecular diagnostics. Myriad Genetics used discoveries made at the U to develop a test for two genetic markers of hereditary breast cancer, the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. It also offers molecular diagnostics for colon cancer, prostate cancer and melanoma to assess an individual’s probability of developing these diseases.
The State of Utah is proactive in fostering both startup and established life science companies. Several public-private partnerships are instrumental in “bundling technologies from the universities into startup companies,” says Knauer.
The Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) initiative, for example, provides funding to attract researchers and has already built two state-of-the-art research facilities at Utah State University in Logan and the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Another initiative, the BioInnovations Gateway (BiG), offers a unique incubator space to help push startup life science companies from concept to market. BiG (see page 66) is strategically housed in the Granite School District offices and the majority of the staff are district high school students. These students get hands-on training and credit toward a tech certificate and on up to a full four-year degree. In turn, startup companies accepted into BiG get vital laboratory space and technical support as they provide learning experiences for students and interns.
From Farm to Field Hospitals
For BioFire Diagnostics, the road to commercializing university research was a little bit bumpy. The company was launched from research undertaken at the U. However, it was originally headquartered in Idaho — literally in a shed on a potato farm. “It was a long way from our science of today,” says CEO Kirk Ririe.
It wasn’t until 1999 that the company was able to relocate to Research Park at the U. The move was a turning point for BioFire Diagnostics — then known as Idaho Technologies. Proximity to the university allowed greater collaboration with researchers there, and the company quickly grew from 15 employees to 400. “For a diagnostics-focused life science company, we are sitting on the right spot, literally on the doorstep of the university,” says Ririe. Over the years, BioFire has worked with several different departments at the U, including the departments of pathology, chemistry, engineering and mathematics. “The U has developed into a major source of new ideas and of spin-off companies,” says Ririe. In many ways, the university has become a research and development arm for life science and technology companies. Early in the 2000s, BioFire developed a beneficial relationship with the military, developing bio-threat testing tools. It was awarded the Joint Biological Agent Identification and Diagnostic System (JBAIDS) contract for an instrument that could identify multiple biological warfare agents, as well as dangerous pathogens.
BioFire used the knowledge gained from the JBAIDS instrument when it began working on its latest system, the FilmArray. The array is a new molecular diagnostic platform that allows health providers to test for large panels of organisms at once, explains Ririe. The FilmArray tests for 20 of the most common or deadly pathogens that cause flu-like illnesses.
“The idea is to give ordinary hospital laboratories the ability to do rapid and comprehensive diagnostics,” he says. Previously, most hospitals had to send samples to an outside laboratory and wait a day or longer for results. In contrast, the FilmArray gives accurate results within an hour.
The array is extremely simple to use, says Ririe, and enables medical providers to start the patient on the right treatment right away, rather than performing a lengthy series of lab tests to discover the illness-causing pathogen.
Ririe credits the State of Utah for helping grow the life science sector here. “The State has gotten excellent return on its investment — and there has been a substantial investment,” he says.
Return on Investments
A life science tax credit helps new and existing life science companies survive and grow. And in general, the State has worked to strengthen both public and higher education and to foster productive collaborations.
Another investment, Custom Fit, is a customized worker training program through the Utah College of Applied Technology and its statewide campuses and sister institutions which can upgrade a company’s workforce with industry specific skills. Local life science company Amedica relies on this program to take people who are already technically proficient and teach them the specific skills needed for its manufacturing processes.
“And a portion of that is funded through the State,” says Amedica CTO Bryan McEntire.
Amedica was founded in 1996 based on the work of two University of Utah researchers. It is the only company capable of producing medical-grade silicon nitride, which it uses to make joint replacement devices. And it is the only company in the world with FDA clearance to make these silicon nitride devices.
Silicon nitride provides several advantages over traditional metal or plastic replacement joints, says McEntire. The unique chemistry and surface texture of silicon nitride are resistant to infection. He says that it is also more “bio-friendly” than metals. “It does not release metallic ions into the surrounding tissue, which tends to kill the tissue.”
Silicon nitride is “the toughest ceramic known to mankind,” he says. While there are other ceramic joint replacements on the market, they are not widely used due to fears about their brittle nature — durable silicon nitride overcomes these fears.
In 2008, Amedica brought to market “spinal cages” that replace the disc between vertebrae in a spinal fusion surgery. Since then, almost 10,000 of these devices have been used worldwide, says McEntire. The company is currently developing a hip replacement device, and McEntire foresees ankle, shoulder and other bone construction devices.
“Utah has a really great environment for life science companies and is highly supportive of biotechnology,” he says.
He also notes that Amedica has a close and continuing relationship with the U. The company has utilized the facilities and services of the Nano Institute and other departments of the U.
“The relationships we have with the U and with BYU have made our work world renowned,” says McEntire.
With a state committed to growing the life science industry, universities churning out ground-breaking discoveries, tech-savvy workers and a populace infused with entrepreneurial zeal, the Utah’s bio-medical industry will only continue to enhance health and healthcare for people worldwide.