Biotech Institute weds laboratory, marketplace

One on One is a weekly feature offering excerpts of interviews conducted by The Evening Sun with newsworthy business leaders. Rita R. Colwell, a marine microbiologist, founded the Maryland Biotechnology Institute in 1985 and now serves as its director. MBI is the only component of the University of Maryland System charged with stimulating economic development as well as conducting basic research.

Q. Tell me about the Maryland Biotechnology Institute. What are its components?


A. There are six centers that make up the Maryland Biotechnology Institute. The institute's main office for the moment is in College Park in the Martin Biology Building . . . The Center for Advanced Research in Biotechnology is in Montgomery County; the Medical Biotechnology Center is in downtown Baltimore; the Center for Marine Biotechnology is temporarily at the Bard Building [at the New Community College of Baltimore in the Inner Harbor] before we move into the Columbus Center [to be built in the Inner Harbor]; and the Center for Agricultural Biotechnology is at College Park. And then we have a Center for Biotechnology Manufacturing . . . that's at UMBC. And that's one of the newest ones. And, finally, we have a Center for Public Issues in Biotechnology, because it's very important to be examining the societal ramifications and the implications of the research at the same time that we're making these discoveries. That was one of the fundamental errors in, let's say, the nuclear discoveries. The implications to society were not really thought through until the events took place. The institute is established to provide a leading center of research and discovery in biotechnology, a core attraction for companies . . . It's very clear that the success of, let's say, San Francisco and Boston has been not because the states have set up industries themselves, but because there is located in Boston and San Francisco outstanding research centers . . . So, we are creating in Maryland an outstanding, cutting-edge research center. And here in Baltimore, we have, in fact, established the world center for marine biotechnology. We are the leaders, but we are fast being caught up with by the Japanese. They are investing $600 million in marine biotechnology, in about a six-month to a year period . . . It's just obvious that the Japanese have done an intensive market survey and have concluded that in particular marine pharmaceuticals, refined chemicals, bulk chemicals -- that there is in fact a huge market.

Q. Would you like to talk a little bit more about the Christopher Columbus Center?


A. Yes. That's extraordinarily exciting, because it is in fact a concept that includes fundamental research, but also public interface . . . one of the basic premises here is that there's a basic need for public understanding of biotechnology, marine biotechnology, not as a mysterious but as a kind of familiar

activity. The center will have about 135,000 square feet and be a very modern facility . . . designed by Richard Rogers, the architect who designed the Pompidou Center [cultural center in Paris]. And that's one of the centers that's been most visited by the public . . . . it's more visited than the Eiffel Tower . . . So, the concept is to root discovery in the heart of the community, to have it part of the Inner Harbor complex, while at the same time to be a center of learning and research . . . and the kinds of projects we're attending are improvement of the fishery stocks in the Chesapeake Bay; enhancement of the growth of Chesapeake Bay oysters; molecular techniques for detecting disease and eradicating disease in the oyster and shellfish and fish populations. And, also, to develop new techniques for bio-remediation. . . . One of the areas in which I, personally, have done a great deal of research is oil spill amelioration. Obviously, that's on the public's mind right now. When you have a serious spill, such as in the [Persian] Gulf or in Alaska, the first step is to go in and mechanically collect as much of the oil and recover it for reuse as you can. Then you're left with this diluted amount of oil which is no longer economically feasible to recover for use. But you've got to clean up the area, because beaches are fouled and the water is contaminated. Well, micro-organisms do the degradation, and if we can enhance or engineer the organisms that are there naturally, and then have them speed up and do a more complete degradation, then that's a very good mechanism for cleanup, both for toxic chemicals as well as for oil and fuels. And then, a number of the group here is working on biofilms. You may think that biofilms don't really have a significant economic impact, but they do. Films form on any surface submersed in the aquatic system, so we are looking at ways of controlling film formation . . . on ship bottoms, you can decrease significantly the amount of fuel consumed, getting, say, across the Atlantic . . . Then something that's very interesting, very cutting-edge research, is in the deep sea -- submarine volcanoes, where the temperatures are 350 degrees, 250 degrees. There's been a controversy as to whether there's any life. Now, we have evidence . . . that there is, perhaps, a living population growing under that very high pressure -- it's like 600 times the pressure of this room -- . . . and with this high pressure and high temperature, it's likely that we have some very unusual living forms . . . Now, what has this got to do with industry and economic development? If there are, in fact, active proteins and enzymes that function in very high pressure and very high temperature, these can have extraordinary industrial applications. . . . And then we are very keenly interested in biodiversity -- the interreactions of microorganisms and dTC invertebrates. For example, we isolated from the Barrier Reef in Australia invertebrate animals which carry a population of bacteria that produce interesting metabolites [products of metabolism], some of which inhibit the growth of weeds, some of which inhibit the growth of cancer cells in kidney cells, leukemia virus. So, these have a tremendous potential as pharmaceuticals. Obviously, this is what attracts the Japanese very much . . . and there have been several antibiotics that have been isolated from fungi in shoals, shoal waters, beaches. There's been an anti-viral chemical isolated from sponges.

Q. How will the current economic conditions affect the Christopher Columbus Center and the plans for expansion that you have?

A. Well, what has to be understood is that we have here already 100 people. We're crowded, and we've only been here a couple of years. The national success rate for obtaining grants and contracts from the National Institute of Health is somewhere between 10 and 20 percent. Our success rate is 50 percent, which means that we have extraordinarily talented people who work very hard and who are highly competitive for research funds. And obviously, there'll be some increase in competition, but we're doing some very exciting work, so we are able to attract people and their funding. Also, we've been interacting with industry, so that we are able to provide the the linkage for research, which the small companies cannot do by themselves . . . So, we play an important role in the economic well-being of the region directly, through the people who we employ in and around the city; and indirectly, through the expanding research grants and contracts base. Being a leader, an international leader, we've made linkages with other countries. We've signed agreements with Chile, with Japan, with Taiwan, with Thailand, with France . . . they're very interested in what we're doing and we work together, exchanging students and visiting scientists and joint projects. We've signed a couple of projects with colleagues in other countries . . . the institute itself has already brought in substantial royalties to the university, nearly a half-million dollars in just three years. A couple of products that are derived from discoveries made by our scientists are now widely marketed.

Q. What else can you tell me about how MBI contributes to the Baltimore-area economy?

A. One of the things that we're very proud of is our interaction with the Community College. We've established a program in biotechnology technician training and it graduates about a dozen a year at the moment, but it can expand readily and easily to three times that. We're proud of this, because we've taken students in after they've completed their first year in Liberty Heights and then they do an apprenticeship in our labs. And they learn, working one on one with faculty members and with faculty and staff, how to use the instrumentation, how to run experiments, how to carry out the maintenance of laboratory equipment and they're very salable; there's a shortage of technicians. So, this, I think, is a very important aspect which contributes to economic development. . . . It's a good program, probably the first in the country.

Q. There's a lot of talk about Maryland's becoming a real center for biotechnology, and we're well on our way to doing that. Have there been any time frames set?

A. I think it's critical for us to be timely in completion of the Columbus Center -- we hope to be moving in around '94 -- because that will demonstrate the cutting-edge capability, and the facility itself will be a delightful addition to the architecture of Baltimore. It's important to have the laboratories that we need, the space that we need, to attract the bright people . . . It's people, facilities and community support. Those are critical. The Japanese have already completed construction of two big laboratories. I think we still have a leg up for another year or two and I think once we move into the new building, we'll again be acknowledged as the world leader.


Q. You received the 1990 Pate Award, one of Maryland's highest awards for contributions to economic development. Was your work in developing MBI a result of some innate entrepreneurial talent or was it an outgrowth of your passion for biotechnology?

A. You know the old adage, "Necessity is the mother of invention?" I'm a woman scientist. I've never exactly had a red carpet in front of me. As a result of that, I've always had to make do. I was always given the smallest lab, and the smallest this or that, and I always managed through ingenuity and creativity to get done a lot of research. My students and I have published almost 400 papers and a dozen books, a lot of research. I'm very proud of my students, excellent students. We've worked under very crowded conditions. At one point, my students wanted to know if I was going to build a loft. But you learn to patch together and do things, and that was just a very good learning exercise. I had to succeed through grit and creativity, entrepreneurship and invention, and now people find adverse budget situations -- they're wringing their hands. All I can say is, "So, what's new? Be creative. There are ways to get things done." Mind you, I'll fight for my budget. I don't want any of it cut, because we're doing splendid things, but I can also say that we're going to find ways to do what we need to do. There's work that has to be done and there's money to do it. It just means that it will take effort and figuring out how to do it. That's probably the caption of my life.

Q. How has the level of acceptance of women scientists changed between when you graduated and now?

A. You want an honest answer? It hasn't changed, it's just less overt and -- what's the term my daughter uses? -- less gross . . . But it's there. That doesn't mean you go home and cry, it just means that you hunker down and go to college.