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Biomedical groups see potential in Worcester

A campaign to position Worcester as a center for biopharmaceutical drug-making is scheduled to kick off Thursday with a press conference at the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council and the release of a report suggesting Boston area companies should capitalize on the manufacturing legacy of Central Massachusetts rather than sending production out of state.

“The robust growth of the state’s drug discovery sector hasn’t translated into manufacturing,” said Kevin O’Sullivan, president of Massachusetts Biomedical Initiatives, an economic development group that cosponsored the report. “A lot of biopharma manufacturing is being shipped to North Carolina or elsewhere. My question is, why isn't it coming here?”

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An industry shift from large-scale production of blockbuster drugs to smaller runs of protein-based biologics for specific patient populations could make the former factory buildings dotting Worcester ideal manufacturing sites, according to the report.

The report was also sponsored by consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Foundation for the Advancement of Personalized Medicine Manufacturing, an organization dedicated to promoting biomanufacturing in the state.

Biotechnology companies such as Biogen Idec Inc. and the Genzyme division of Sanofi SA already produce medicines in the Boston area, while pharmaceutical giants such as Bristol-Myers Squibb and AbbVie Inc. manufacture drugs in Central Massachusetts. But many smaller biotech companies in and around Cambridge hire outside contract firms to produce small batches of drugs for research and clinical trials.

Timothy P. Coleman, chief executive of Blue Ocean Biomanufacturing, a two-year-old Worcester startup seeking to provide flexible biomanufacturing space, said there are currently about 1,200 molecules being developed in Massachusetts labs. Many will become drugs that could be manufactured locally if the state can seize the opportunity, he said.

Blue Ocean is leasing space at a former Charles River Laboratories complex on the edge of downtown Worcester, where Coleman plans to provide manufacturing capability for multiple drug makers.

Unlike contract manufacturers, Blue Ocean will operate as a “strategic manufacturing partner,” custom-building a production process for a drug company, operating it during clinical stage testing, and either continuing to run production or transferring it to the customer when the drug is approved for sale.

Coleman said his startup’s ability to deploy single-use disposable manufacturing equipment — 2,000-liter biomanufacturing plastic bags that can be put in and pulled out of vats known as bioreactors — will enable it to pioneer a modular production model that will make costs competitive with manufacturing sites down south or overseas.

“We’re putting in a system that can change out equipment rapidly so that you can manufacture different drugs,” he said. “This is a major disruption in the economic equation.”

O’Sullivan said Thursday’s press conference at the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council’s offices in Cambridge was meant to make companies in the Boston area biotechnology cluster aware of the push to promote biomanufacturing in Worcester.

The organizers might also seek state economic development grants to spur development of additional sites, he said.

“Worcester has the location and the brains,” O’Sullivan said, citing its 10 colleges with 35,000 students. “We’re 45 miles from the epicenter of the world, Kendall Square. Worcester County is full of these [factory] buildings. We could pull this off anywhere. We’ve got to get people from state government and biopharma to believe manufacturing is not dead in this state.”

Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.
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