Editor’s note: Ryan Combs is the executive director of the Research Triangle Regional Partnership.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – As the world continues to recover and look for solutions to address COVID-19, I wanted to take a moment to highlight a few of the incredible contributions the state of North Carolina has made toward one of the world’s biggest challenges to date.

Perhaps no region in the United States was more prepared to fight coronavirus than our state’s Research Triangle Region. As you may be aware, the Triangle is known widely as one of the top life science clusters in the United States. with more than 500 life science companies in our 12-county region. The world-renown Research Triangle Park (largest research park in the U.S.) serves as the epicenter and is surrounded by three tier-1 research universities – North Carolina State University (NCSU), Duke University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) – as well as the highest concentration of contract research organizations in the world and numerous biomanufacturing facilities all within an hour’s drive.  These incredible assets have helped transform our region into a global leader in biotech research and manufacturing.

Research Triangle Regional Partnership Executive Director Ryan Combs addresses the audience at the 2018 State of the Region conference. (Photo: RTRP)

The Triangle’s universities have played a major role in the growth of our life science ecosystem and are national leaders in health science research. As a matter of fact, both Duke and UNC receive in excess of $1 billion annually in federal research dollars and their discoveries have global implications. Since the coronavirus outbreak, only two organizations have received more COVID-19 funding than UNC: the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). One of UNC’s most notable contributions to date has been their academic-corporate partnership with Gilead Sciences to develop the drug Remdesivir.  Remdesivir has recently gained global notoriety for being the only effective drug available for the treatment of COVID-19. Dr. Ralph Baric and his team at the UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health deserve a tremendous amount of credit for their central involvement with Remdesivir.

Not only are the region’s universities looking for a treatment, but they are also striving to aid the world’s response to the pandemic. Duke University, in partnership with its medical school in Singapore, recently announced a new blood test in to detect antibodies for the coronavirus – and it can be done in less than an hour.  NCSU’s Nonwovens Institute (NWI) has also contributed by using its two training production lines to produce high-quality face mask materials in mass quantities to support first responders. Since the pandemic started, NWI has donated enough of its newly developed filtration material to Fort Bragg to create more than 100,000 masks, and most recently, the institute collaborated with ExxonMobil and NatureWorks to source additional materials needed.

Outside the universities, Research Triangle companies are answering calls to help solve this global challenge by attacking it from all angles. One of our prominent contract organizations, RTI International is using its extensive experience addressing public health threats to model the possible impacts of COVID-19 in North Carolina and survey public understanding of the virus, among other work. Burlington-based LabCorp has developed the first FDA-authorized coronavirus diagnostic kit that allows patients to self-test at home. Down the road in Johnston County, Grifols has begun collecting plasma donations from recovered coronavirus patients to produce a therapeutic in hopes it will be an effective treatment for the disease. And in Morrisville, Metabolon is conducting studies to gain a better understanding around why some patients die from the coronavirus and others have no symptoms, as well as why treatments for the disease only work in certain patients.

Additionally, biopharmaceutical companies are testing their exisiting drugs to see if they could be use to fight against coronavirus. Durham’s Chimerix was recently approved by the FDA to test its experimental cancer drug on COVID-19 patients. Chimerix is confident that their drug has the potential to address lung inflammation and blood coagulation, two complications that are associated with the virus.

This is just a snapshot of the great work being done right now, and all of these assets contribute greatly to our state’s economy. In the best of times, these high-tech companies are a pillar of our economy, a key source of tax revenue to support public services, and an essential provider of well-paying jobs. Now, in the wake of this pandemic, they are literally lifesavers.

Our life science ecosystem did not happen by accident. Forward-thinking business and government leaders laid the groundwork years ago with the creation of both the Research Triangle Park in 1959 and the North Carolina  Biotechnology Center.  These two organizations have helped make biotechnology a $74.5 billion industry in North Carolina that directly and indirectly supports more than 250,000 jobs and generates close to $3.6 billion in annual state tax revenues.

In order for North Carolina to stay competitive, we need the continued support of both Congress and the State Legislature.  Our state is now ranked 6th nationally in federal research funding allocations, with 95 percent of those research dollars going to either Duke, UNC, or NCSU. Our federal delegation in Congress has helped us tremendously in the past, and we need them to continue to advocate for increased research dollars for our universities. We also need the state legislature to ensure they are doing everything they can to keep us competitive here in North Carolina by supportorting our research institutions as well as exisiting industry. If we can maintain our momentum, the future remains incredibly bright for our great state.

About the author

Ryan Combs is the executive director of the Research Triangle Regional Partnership, an economic development organization sustained by and committed to 12 core counties located in Central North Carolina. It serves as a connector between businesses looking to expand or relocate, and the economic development offices, government agencies, and business organizations that support private sector growth.