Business

Alnylam buys Norton site for $200m drug manufacturing plant

Alnylam
A rendering of Alnylam’s planned manufacturing plant in Norton, Mass.

Alnylam Pharmaceuticals Inc. said it will build a $200 million manufacturing plant on a 12-acre site it has purchased in the southeastern Massachusetts town of Norton, a facility that may employ 220 workers within five years.

Chief executive John Maraganore declined to disclose how much Cambridge-based Alnylam paid for the land, acquired Wednesday from Quincy real estate development firm Condyne LLC. Maraganore said in an interview Thursday that Alnylam plans to break ground in April and complete construction of the plant by 2018, when its first drugs are expected to enter the market.

The production site will initially employ about 150 workers, but is expected to add jobs over time, Maraganore said.

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“This will be our facility for potentially dozens of medicines,” Maraganore said. “We’re in execution mode now as a company. To be able to reach our goal of being a multi-product company by 2020, we have to be able to manufacture these important medicines.”

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Massachusetts, a global center for drug research, is becoming a force in production as well. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. runs a plant in Devens, Sanofi Genzyme has manufacturing in Boston and Framingham, and Biogen Inc. has a site in Cambridge. Other companies that make drugs here include Pfizer Inc. (Andover), Shire PLC (Lexington), AbbVie Inc. (Worcester), and Baxter International Inc. (Milford).

Expanding drug manufacturing in Massachusetts has become a priority for state officials because the plants often employ more people than research and development sites.

“This is another proof point that we have all the architecture to take drugs from idea to manufacturing,” said Travis McCready, president of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, the state agency charged with promoting biotech and medical technology. “Alnylam is a company born in Massachusetts, and it’s exciting to see them continue to grow in scale here.”

The life sciences center will review an Alnylam application later this month for a tax incentive based on its plans to create jobs at the manufacturing site, McCready said. The town of Norton has approved a 13-year property tax reduction totaling more than $7 million.

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Alnylam, a pioneer in the emerging gene-silencing technology known as RNA interference, is not expected to seek US approval for its first drug until next year. But the company has a market value of about $5 billion based on expectations of its pipeline’s potential.

Maraganore said Alnylam is using a small site in Cambridge to produce its lead drug candidate, Patisiran, which treats a rare neurological disease, for clinical trials and, eventually, commercial sales. But the remainder of its drug portfolio, he said, will be made in Norton and at third-party contract manufacturers to assure back-up production capacity.

Alnylam currently has eight experimental drugs in clinical trials, and expects to have 11 by the end of the year. Maraganore said the company projects it will continue to introduce new drugs for clinical testing at a rate of about three a year for the foreseeable future. In some of its drug programs, Alnylam is collaborating with the larger Sanofi Genzyme.

Maraganore said drug production at Norton will use a process called RNA synthesis, which includes advanced purification techniques. While the company looked at a number of other sites, “basing the plant here in Massachusetts was important to us,” he said, citing the need for a highly skilled workforce. “This facility will be more sophisticated than a typical pharmaceutical plant that makes pills.”

Alnylam has about 350 employees globally, including about 325 in Massachusetts.

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The company also has a small office outside London and is planning to open a European headquarters. The drugs made in Norton will be shipped worldwide.

Maraganore said the company expects to have more than 1,500 employees globally in the next five years and plans to continue building a campus in Cambridge’s Kendall Square.

Last year, Alnylam negotiated a “right of first offer” to lease Genzyme Center, the signature office tower in the heart of Kendall Square’s biotechnology cluster, when Sanofi Genzyme moves out in 2018. Alnylam has also agreed to lease offices and labs at 675 West Kendall St., diagonally across from Genzyme Center, starting on May 1, 2018. Both sites are close to its current headquarters on 300 Third St.

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