Montgomery County, particularly Gaithersburg, has become a central hub for vaccine research and development, and to a lesser extent for vaccine manufacturing.
The County is a key vaccine development center “not only for the country, but the world,” said Brad Fackler, senior director for life sciences at the c.
There are no figures available for revenues brought into county companies for vaccines, or number of people employed here in the industry. However, the state Department of Commerce website says that the overall life sciences industry was responsible for $17.42 billion in gross state product (2015), 41,570 jobs with $4.28 billion in wages (2016), and $1.55 billion of federal procurement to contractors in the state (fiscal year 2016).
The state has a list of 15 relatively large, more established companies in the County working in whole or part on vaccines, seven in Gaithersburg, six in Rockville, and two in Bethesda, Fackler noted.
Reviewing lists of medical research-related firms provided by Rockville Economic Development, Inc. (REDI), startup incubators and other sources, and checking for company names indicating vaccine or immune therapy work, it is clear that there are many smaller and newer firms working here in these fields.
In fact, there are companies in the County competing with each other on vaccines. For instance, MedImmune (part of drug giant AstraZeneca) and Novavax, both based in Gaithersburg, are working on different vaccines for respiratory syncytial virus, which is the leading cause of lower respiratory tract infections in children.
REDI Executive Director Laurie Boyer said “many companies in [all fields of the drug] the industry value the proximity to the Food and Drug Administration headquarters” and the National Institutes of Health. Having achieved hub status, the county attracts even more life sciences/biotech companies, Boyer explained.
“Many times,” she said, “smaller firms will locate here and end up partnering with larger companies, or have something that they’ve developed get acquired by GlaxoSmithKline or AstraZeneca. It’s a very symbiotic relationship.”
Boyer added, “We have a lot of great resources to bring these companies together so they can interact and see what everyone is doing.” Examples she gave were the Maryland Tech Council, BioBuzz networking events, BioHealth Innovation, and the Maryland Department of Commerce.
Significant vaccine work takes place elsewhere in Maryland, especially Baltimore. For instance, Emergent BioSolutions, Inc., based in Gaithersburg, which specializes in countermeasures (such as vaccines and antidotes) to bioterrorism threats, has its headquarters and research facilities in Gaithersburg, and manufacturing plants in Baltimore (as well as out-of-state), said Miko Neri, senior director of corporate communications at the company.
Neri pointed out additional attractions Montgomery County and the state of Maryland offer for life sciences companies. These include a “highly skilled workforce for life sciences work,” entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to assist with financing, top academic medical centers, “a state-of-the-art manufacturing base,” and medical providers interested in doing research work. The County has a “desirable quality of life,” she said, and an “efficient transportation system.” Of interest to Emergent, key federal agencies in military medicine and biological threats are also in Maryland, she noted.
Another advantage of the vaccine hub is simply being able to win business from other firms that need specialized work in the field. For instance, Rockville-based Advanced Bioscience Laboratories Inc., a major contract manufacturing organization and contract research organization for vaccine and other biotech companies, won a 2016 subcontract from Emergent “for the rapid transfer and production of an inactivated Zika virus vaccine.” Emergent’s federal contract came from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, part of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Many vaccine companies today do not work on traditional vaccines that would be given to a patient who does not have a disease to grant a lifetime (or at least many years) of immunity from a given disease. Examples of such vaccines are the polio vaccine, the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine given to children, and flu vaccines given to most of the public every year to grant partial immunity to the common strains of influenza. Often, such vaccines consist of killed or inactivated particles of the disease in question.
Nontraditional vaccines also engage the immune system to ward off disease, but by activating the immune system rather than adding a new capability to it. And often, nontraditional vaccines are used on patients who already have a serious disease. For instance, many press reports indicated that former President Carter was treated for and apparently cured of a late-stage brain cancer in 2016 by treatments that activated his own immune system to fight the cancer.
There are several companies in Montgomery County working on nontraditional vaccines. In the words of the website of Immage Biotherapeutics, located in Bethesda, the company is researching ways of “harnessing the power of the immune system” to fight cancer. Its product pipeline includes a “DNA viral vaccine” that targets certain melanoma tumors that appear in many kinds of cancer.” The company is working toward a “universal vaccine” that aims at any melanoma tumor of that type, the website says.
Similarly, Altimmune, Inc., of Gaithersburg is working “to stimulate robust and durable immune responses for the prevention and treatment of disease,” says its website. And, Northwest Biotherapeutics of Bethesda aims for “immunotherapy products that generate and enhance immune system responses to treat cancer,” and “cancer vaccines designed to treat a broad range of solid tumor cancers.”
The majority of nontraditional vaccines are currently in the lab or in clinical trials prior to FDA approval.