Mel Billingsley | Life sciences firms enhance quality of life

December 4, 2013 

Right now, in companies, labs and universities across the nation, there are more than 5,400 potential new treatments for diseases in the development pipeline.

Many offer an entirely new approach to treatment for their targeted diseases; others target conditions known as “orphan diseases,” such as ALS and pancreatic cancer, that haven’t seen a new treatment for years.

Still others have been designated “breakthrough therapies” by the Food and Drug Administration.

Many of these advances are coming from central Pennsylvania, home to a thriving life sciences industry. This vital sector isn’t just producing more effective medicines. It’s also boosting our economy and creating jobs.

Central Pennsylvania is home to more than 200 life sciences companies and at least 400 other firms closely tied to the industry. It’s no wonder — with major research institutions such as Penn State and dozens of other colleges and universities, a talented workforce and access to major domestic and international markets, the area is fertile ground for advanced research and development.

The Life Sciences Greenhouse of Central Pennsylvania supports the formation and growth of such companies by providing funding and expertise to promising bioscience startups. We work to ensure that potential breakthrough treatments reach patients as quickly and efficiently as possible, rather than getting stuck in a lab.

Together with our sister Life Sciences Greenhouses in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and with support from policy initiatives designed by leaders in Harrisburg and Washington who understand the economic importance of this industry, we’re striving to ensure that Pennsylvania maintains its position as a global leader in the life sciences.

The Keystone State ranks in the top five nationally for the number of approved bioscience-related patents, the number of new clinical trials and overall National Institures of Health funding. The industry employs more than 76,000 workers directly and supports 459,000 indirectly.

These are high-quality jobs; bioscience wages are about twice the state average.

Yet some government actions and proposed policies threaten medical breakthroughs and their associated economic upside.

One example is sequestration, which is having serious negative impacts on federal funding for research.

Approval rates for NIH grants have dipped to 1 in 10, and budgets of existing grants have been slashed. Federal Small Business Innovation Research grants to promising small businesses also have become much more difficult to obtain, putting a real strain on promising startup technologies.

Another example is the proposed scaling back of patent protection and data exclusivity currently provided to biotech-based drugs.

The rationale is to allow cheaper biosimilar drugs on the market sooner. But without adequate protections, research firms will lose confidence in their chances of recouping the huge investments behind each new breakthrough drug.

Penn State researchers recently discovered a new kind of molecule that could help create a more powerful antibiotic. The research team is now at work with biopharmaceutical companies to develop a new treatment for destructive bacterial infections such as anthrax and tuberculosis. Others are working on novel treatments for oncology and neurologic diseases.

To ensure that these kinds of exciting developments continue, we need to help our elected leaders understand the importance of a vibrant life sciences industry in Pennsylvania and in the United States.

Ultimately, supporting the industry helps to save lives and improves the quality of life for millions while supporting our economy.

Mel Billingsley is president and CEO of the Life Sciences Greenhouse, a professor of pharmacology at the Penn State Milton S. Hershey College of Medicine, and a professor of biotechnology and entrepreneurship at Penn State Harrisburg.

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