RESEARCH TRIANGLE…Not everyone knows it, but some of North Carolina’s most successful life science companies won very early stage support from NC Biotechnology Center (BTC) grants and loans.

Two of the region’s most successful public companies, Embrex (Nasdaq:EMBX) and Trimeris, (Nasdaq:TRMS) received early stage support from BTC. Trimeris, which launched the first of its new type of HIV-fighting drugs, Fuzeon, this year, received a Biotech Center loan of $250,000 in 1993 that helped it conduct research and raise additional capital.

Embrex, which makes an in-the-egg vaccination machine and vaccines for commercial chicken producers, received more than $200,000 from the BTC back in 1985 and went on to raise $16 million in venture capital and launch a successful initial public offering of stock.

The academic research initiation grant, a BTC program discontinued due to budget cutbacks, helped AlphaVax, which is developing leading edge vaccines, at what the company says was “a very critical time.”

Perhaps even less known to the general public than its early stage support to nascent start-ups, the BTC’s science and technology development grants help state universities attract top-of-the-line academic research talent, fund projects of commercial interest in academic laboratories, and encourage innovative collaborative research.

Past Successes

Barry Teater, BTC director of communications, tells Local Tech Wire the actual budget for the grant program won’t be set until the NC State Legislature decides on the Center’s new budget. Continuing and mildly escalating support for the grant programs is outlined in the “New Jobs Across North Carolina” strategic plan for growing the economy through biotechnology submitted to Gov. Easley early this year.

Teater points to several past successes of the grant programs.

The BTC faculty recruitment grants, one of four still active programs, have helped bring such academic stars as Dr. Oliver Smithies to UNC-Chapel Hill. Smithies, who has won multiple prestigious awards for his research, pioneered gene targeting (knockout mice) in animal models for human disease. It also helped recruit Dr. Richard J. Samulski to UNC. His gene-therapy technology is the basis for Asklepios Biopharmaceutical, Raleigh, which is developing a promising treatment for multiple sclerosis.

The grants are targeted to help recruit faculty members who will further the institution’s overall biotechnology program. They help give the college or university an advantage in negotiating for the recruit. In 2004, the BTC gave Wake Forest University a $100,000 grant to help land Dr. Bradley Jones as an associate professor of chemistry, for instance.

Research equipment

The BTC’s institutional development grant helps provide research equipment or core facilities that serve at least six investigators. They usually go to proposals that involve collaboration between academic and industrial scientists and strengthen regional biotech capabilities.

In 2004, Dr. Daniel Baden of UNC-Wilmington received an award of $48,806 to transport and reassemble a high-resolution mass spectrometer worth $350,000 but donated free to the university.

Dr. Jay Levine won an award of $152,379 to establish an aquatic animal biosecurity laboratory at North Carolina State University. The lab will help develop diagnostic tests to detect fish pathogens and vaccines based on recombinant DNA technology to treat them, a matter of increasing concern since detection of two foreign fish pathogens into U.S. fish farms. Diagnostic test and vaccine development in the US thus far has been limited by the lack of availability of containment facilities to study these viruses. Only one facility in the US is Seattle Washington is currently certified to conduct studies on foreign fish pathogens.

Collaborative funding

The BTC and the Kenan Institute for Engineering Technology and Science co-sponsor the collaborative funding grant program. It supports graduate or postdoctoral students in university research labs working on biotech projects of commercial interest. Teater says companies, the universities, Kenan and BTC usually contribute although amounts do not always match. In 2004, Dr. John Ansede, UNC-Chapel Hill, won support of $100,000, $68,000 from BTC, and $32,000 from Kenan funds.

The multidisciplinary research grant encourages three or more NC-based scientists from different disciplines to work together. It is intended to support research collecting data for federal grant applications.

Researchers at NCSU and UNC-Pembroke won a 2004 award of $157,824 to study a robust method for extracting nutraceuticals and other compounds from plants illustrated by extraction of lipids and vitamins from duckweed. Duckweed is particularly attractive because it can easily genetically manipulated, is not a food crop for humans and can be grown on wastewaters. It is the plant Biolex uses to make proteins in enclosed aquatic environments.

Deadlines for these grants vary and are listed on the BTC site at the address below:
Grant Info