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Leica Biosystems plans R&D expansion in area

Leica will develop cancer diagnostics in Massachusetts.

Leica will develop cancer diagnostics in Massachusetts.

Leica Biosystems, which quietly moved into the Boston area last fall, is gearing up for significant hiring, the company says.

“We’re putting in the foundations for quite a big team,” said Victoria Reid, research and development leader of Leica Biosystems in the United Kingdom. “We do plan to expand. I can’t really say to what size.”

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Leica has a small, temporary space at Cherry Hill Industrial Park on the Danvers-Beverly line. It’s not clear where the company plans to locate as it grows.

Leica’s group here will make what are called companion diagnostics, tests that help pathologists determine precise characteristics of a patient’s cancer. Many drug companies want such companion diagnostics to help predict whether patients will fare well on their drugs.

The company has announced a partnership with Galena Biopharma to develop a companion diagnostic for Galena’s breast cancer vaccine, NeuVax, for patients with low levels of HER2 protein in their tumors. Leica already has a diagnostic for high levels of HER2 and is now testing to see whether it can also detect low levels of the protein, Reid said.

Leica is in negotiations with other Boston-area pharmaceutical companies to develop more companion diagnostics, Reid said.

Leica chose to locate north of Boston, she said, to be close to many potential partners, and because the area has exceptionally talented scientists.

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“We were aware of the very rich talent pool,” she said. “And we’ve not been disappointed at all.”

So far, the company is focusing its Massachusetts work on diagnostics, but Leica is also a research, instrument, and medical device company, said Peter Abair, director of economic and global affairs for the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, a nonprofit that promotes the life sciences and health care industries. He said that all of Leica’s areas of focus are a good match for Massachusetts, and hopes the company will eventually expand here.

“I think any company in the life sciences is wise to have a presence of some sort in Massachusetts, especially if they have anything to do with the research side of the industry,” he said.

The Boston area is becoming a magnet for biotech companies from all over the world, including from Germany, Spain, Norway, and Israel, and attracting “three companies from Japan just in the last six months,” said Susan Windham-Bannister, president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, which administers the state’s 10-year, $1 billion investment in the life sciences.

Martha Farmer of North Shore InnoVentures, a Beverly nonprofit that supports life science and clean technology companies, hopes Leica decides to stay on the North Shore. There are already 85 such companies in the area, according to a recent survey.

“If I have the opportunity to convince them to stay here, I sure will,” Farmer said.

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