CLSA in the San Diego Union-Tribune: From cancer to genetic diseases, San Diego’s march of drugs progresses
Bradley J. Fikes | Read at the San Diego Union-Tribune
June 10, 2018
Being diagnosed with a serious illness prompts a universal question: What is out there that can help me?
Increasingly, the answer is coming from San Diego’s large biomedical industry.
The region’s researchers and companies are distinguished by innovative drugs, some of which have changed the entire landscape around disease treatment. These include:
- Rituxan, the first biotech drug for cancer
- Humira, prescribed for various autoimmune diseases
- Spinraza, the first effective treatment for spinal muscular atrophy, a potentially fatal disease
These and other important drugs were discovered by large pharmaceutical companies and tiny biotech startups, all based on science originating in San Diego. A recent addition to that list is Aimovig, the first medicine ever approved to prevent migraine headaches. A UC San Diego-led research team made the original discovery in 1982 that resulted in the drug.
More drugs are on the way, and they could be coming faster.
It’s part of a trend called translational medicine, quickly becoming the heart of the university-industry medical city that’s been rising on the east side of I-5 at Genesee.
Big donors such as philanthropist Denny Sanford and Ernest Rady are pushing a clear message: Reduce the time it takes to turn a discovery into treatment.
The biopharma companies also feel the pressure, as major drugs lose patent protection and the disease challenges get harder.
San Diego offers them a entrepreneurial culture that’s focused on discovery, said Sara Radcliffe, president and CEO of the California Life Sciences Association.
“These companies have told me that they’re in the San Diego area in order to make connections, and particularly to get in touch with those entrepreneurial emerging firms, and really stay at the forefront of research,” Radcliffe said.
Genetic research in San Diego is particularly strong, she said. One of its fruits is Kalydeco, a drug for a mutation causing a small number of cases of cystic fibrosis.
Kalydeco was developed by San Diego-based researchers for Vertex Pharmaceuticals of Boston. The company is developing additional genetic therapies to treat more cystic fibrosis patient. It recently expanded its San Diego center from 80,000 square feet to 170,000 square feet.
Companies like Vertex and academic biomedical research centers are clustered near the Petri dish that is UC San Diego, which is growing in sync with the commercial drug industry.
In 2016, UC San Diego opened the 359,000-square-foot Altman Clinical and Translational Research building center. Less than a mile away, Eli Lilly & Co. completed an expansion of its biotech operations in 2017, nearly doubling space to 300,000 square feet.
Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute has received two donations totaling $375 million since 2014 to support translational research. And The Scripps Research Institute has begun steering discoveries into Calibr, an affiliate with the goal of speeding drugs out of Scripps and into the clinic.
Peter G. Schultz, president and CEO of Scripps Research, aims to turn this translational program into a flow of money that will be funneled back into research. The goal is to make Scripps financially self-sustaining, at a time when government research funding is leveling off.
Drug research, development and manufacturing represents a core component of San Diego County’s life sciences sector, which also includes medical device companies, renewable fuels and chemicals, and equipment sales.
The sector generates $34 billion in economic activity, according to a 2017 report from Biocom, a California life science trade group headquartered in San Diego. Nearly 50,000 people are employed in the sector.
Pharmaceutical-related jobs also pay well, according to data from the California Employment Development Department. For the first quarter of 2017, life scientists in San Diego County earned an average annual wage of about $80,000 to $100,000, depending on their precise occupation. Microbiologists earned nearly $93,000, and biochemists about $104,000.
San Diego County’s average annual wage was about $56,600, according to the department.
Further north, in Oceanside, biotech giant Genentech, a subsidiary of Roche, manufactures three drugs on its campus. They are Avastin, for cancer, Rituxan, for cancer and some autoimmune diseases, and Actemra for rheumatoid arthritis. Genentech employs about 400 people in Oceanside.
Also in North County, the city of Carlsbad is growing its own biotech cluster led by Ionis Pharmaceuticals. Maker of the breakthrough spinal muscular drug Spinraza, Ionis has numerous other drugs in clinical trials.
One of the most anticipated experimental drugs from Ionis treats Huntington’s disease, an incurable and invariably fatal disease. The drug is showing early signs of effectiveness, but that needs to be confirmed in more advanced testing.
“We’ve got a few of our own team situated in Carlsbad,” Radcliffe said. “It’s a very attractive place to live and promises to grow in terms of life sciences activity.”
Not just Carlsbad, but the San Diego area as a whole benefits from being a desirable place to live. Local entrepreneurs frequently say the area’s enviable climate and lifestyle played a major reason in drawing them here.
Osman Kibar, a technology billionaire and founder of Samumed, is one of them.
A native of Izmir, Turkey, Kibar attended UC San Diego and then became a venture capitalist in New York City. Later on, he returned to San Diego, where he founded privately held Samumed. San Diego’s mild climate is like that of his hometown, Kibar said by email.
“America’s Finest City offers the perfect combination of healthcare talent pool, world-renowned academic institutions, a vibrant startup community, and a supportive city administration,” Kibar said.
Samumed, which employs a little more than 150 people in San Diego, is conducting human clinical trials of drugs to treat cancer, osteoarthritis, degenerative disc disease, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, and several other diseases.
Rituxan, the first biotech drug for cancer, was invented by San Diego’s Idec Pharmaceuticals, now part of Cambridge, Mass.-based Biogen. It was approved in 1997 for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Rituxan is an antibody-based drug, a class of biotech medicines that has become blockbusters. Other antibody drugs approved since Rituxan include Herceptin for breast cancer; Avastin, for a number of cancers; and Erbitux, for head, neck and colorectal cancer.
Many other cancer drugs have been developed from the insights of Salk Institute scientist Tony Hunter, who discovered a new mechanism for cancer in the late 1970s. His insight has led so far to 31 approved cancer drugs.
San Diego’s skills in exploring the frontiers of bioscience attracted drug giant Novartis around the turn of the century, said Jerry Joyce, director of the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation. The foundation bridges research and drug development for the Swiss drug giant.
“This was in a very frothy period of biotech, when the human genome was going to be in hand,” Joyce said. “The Novartis Research Foundation said we want to be at the frontier in blue-sky research — we need to be in San Diego.”
San Diego’s “independent, entrepreneurial vibe,” also made it a good fit for Novartis research, Joyce said. Novartis, with 550 employees, is the second-largest drugmaker in the county, as ranked by local employees.
The region’s emphasis on entrepreneurship comes with a rare concentration of research expertise in La Jolla. That, along with lower real estate costs than Boston or San Francisco, have helped it become a strong third in biotech nationwide.
Some once tiny biotechs headquartered here aren’t so tiny any more. Carlsbad’s Ionis, for example, employs 470; and Neurocrine Biosciences 400. Both are publicly traded, with a market value measured in the billions.
These companies have grown with the help of partnerships with the big pharma companies. Some local biomedical companies so interested their big partners that they purchased them, turning their headquarters into a San Diego branch of the big company.
That’s how Pfizer, the largest drugmaker by local employment, came to San Diego. Pfizer’s campus, with about 1,000 on its payroll, used to house HIV drug developer Agouron Pharmaceuticals.
On the strength of its powerful drug Viracept, Agouron was purchased in 1999 by Warner-Lambert for $2.1 billion. The next year, Warner-Lambert was acquired by Pfizer for $90 billion.
So Pfizer’s coming to San Diego was a chance byproduct of a much larger transaction. But once it found itself in San Diego, Pfizer liked it.
Pfizer La Jolla scientists have helped develop drugs for some especially difficult cancers. These include:
- Xalkori, the first drug specifically for advanced or metastatic non-small cell lung cancer
- Inlyta, for advanced kidney cancer that has not responded to previous drug therapy
- Sutent, for certain intestinal, kidney and pancreatic cancers
“Key to La Jolla’s success is the ability to bring together new findings and technologies from a variety of scientific disciplines and apply them to the challenges typically faced in drug discovery efforts,” the company said.
Such big pharma acquisitions haven’t always been positive. In 2012 Bristol-Myers Squibb bought Amylin for $7 billion for its diabetes drugs, then closed down the company.
But the overall trend has been upward. Celgene, for example, came to San Diego in 2000 when it purchased Signal Pharmaceuticals. In 2015 the company expanded again when it purchased Receptos for $7.2 billion.
And just this year, Celgene acquired startup Impact Biomedicines for $1 billion. The prize is a promising experimental cancer drug called fedratinib, which treats rare blood cancers.
Celgene’s local payroll is now nearly 500.
“It’s safe to say we’ve doubled in size over the last 10 years,” said Greg Geissman, a Receptos spokesman.
Read at the San Diego Union-Tribune