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State officials aim for continued biopharma growth

Shire’s manufacturing facility in Lexington.
Shire’s manufacturing facility in Lexington.(REUTERS/FILE)

CAMBRIDGE — The booming Bay State biotechnology sector is best known for its drug research and development. While the state is home to a cluster of production plants, where biotech therapies are actually made, they have never generated jobs on the scale once seen in minicomputers or defense electronics.

But state business and government officials are trying to showcase and expand biomanufacturing at a time when more than 1,400 experimental drugs are in the research pipelines of Massachusetts-based biotechs. They represent 13 percent of all US drug candidates and 6.5 percent of those worldwide, according to the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council.

"This is an opportunity," Peter Abair, the council's director of economic and global affairs, told about 100 people Friday at a MassBio panel on biomanufacturing. "Manufacturing is part of the fabric of this industry in Massachusetts. There are a lot of 20- and 30-acre sites north, south, and west of Boston" that can support manufacturing.

Over eight years, the number of state jobs in biomanufacturing climbed 24.2 percent, to 9,322 by 2013. But officials think it can grow further as more biotech drugs are approved for sale.

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"We are fixated on the ecosystem that supports life sciences here in Massachusetts," said Jay Ash, the state secretary of housing and economic development. "We believe we can do more in manufacturing."

Two of the region's largest biomanufacturing plants are in neighboring states: a Portsmouth, N.H., site operated by Swiss drug maker Lonza Biologics Inc., and a West Greenwich, R.I., site run by biotech giant Amgen Inc. Together with Bristol-Myers Squibb's drug manufacturing plant in Devens, they represent three of the world's largest bioproduction facilities.

Other biotechs have smaller manufacturing sites in Massachusetts, including Pfizer Inc. in Andover, Shire PLC in Lexington, AbbVie Inc. in Worcester, Genzyme in Allston and Framingham, and Baxter International Inc. in Milford. There are also dozens of smaller contract manufacturing businesses that produce drugs, often in small batches for clinical trials.

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Still, some drug company executives say it can be difficult to find manufacturers able to produce emerging types of targeted medicines, such as cell and gene therapies.

"I have to go all over the world to find contract research and contract manufacturing," said Joanne Beck, senior vice president of product development at Shire. She said the company is reluctant to invest in its own production sites until its therapies have been tested and proven. "Why don't we have more capacity in Massachusetts?"

One hurdle is that companies often have trouble hiring employees with the skills necessary to work with bioreactors and other complex machinery used in the production of biotech drugs that, unlike chemical-based pills, are grown from mammalian cell culture.

Educational institutions, from Worcester Polytechnic Institute to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are attempting to fill that gap with training programs — including custom-designed courses for biotechs such as Cambridge-based Biogen Inc. — in everything from process controls to contamination in biomanufacturing.

"Wherever you go, Massachusetts is the name in science and technology," said Kaman Rashid, director of the Biomanufacturing Education and Training Center at Worcester Polytech, which has run a course to retrain workers laid off at Intel Inc.'s chipmaking plant in Hudson. "As the biomanufacturing industry expands, there is always a need for workforce. And sometimes there is a shortage of that workforce."


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

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