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Md. center talks with German firm Board seeks help with bioprocessing


A large German health care company is considering setting up shop in Baltimore to manage a manufacturing center for small biotechnology companies at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Campus.

The board of the Maryland Bioprocessing Center said yesterday that it had entered into exclusive negotiations with Boehringer Mannheim International to operate the state-funded center, which is designed to help biotech companies bring lab discoveries to market.

If enough business developed from the center, the company also would be interested in building a drug manufacturing plant next to the bioprocessing center in Baltimore, according to Dennert O. Ware, president of the biochemical products division of Boehringer in Indianapolis.

Attracting a major drug manufacturer to Baltimore has long been an economic development goal for the city and state, because it could provide hundreds of jobs to city residents and act as a catalyst for growing the biotech industry, which is made up of dozens of small firms.

"There is nothing to say you can't grow an industry one biotech company at a time. But most would say that having some big presence in the community accelerates that process," said David Gillece of Gillece and Associates, an economic development consulting firm in Baltimore.

But, he added, Boehringer Mannheim hasn't promised anything yet. "It is a definite maybe now."

While Boehringer's Mr. Ware said the company was "very much interested in exploring opportunities" in Baltimore, he said that the company must be sure that there is enough of a market for the center.

Nevertheless, Boehringer has gone to some lengths to investigatethe Baltimore opportunity, including putting a $45 million project in Indianapolis on hold.

If Boehringer came to the city, said Barbara Plantholt, chairwoman of the center's board, the company would possibly invest up to $25 million in the bioprocessing center, rather than the $2 million the center's board had sought from an operator.

The state's Department of Economic and Employment Development, which is involved in the negotiations, refused to comment on board's decision or the talks with Boehringer.

The decision of the bioprocessing center's board to negotiate with Boehringer has not been without opposition.

Jacques R. Rubin complained that his Maryland biotech company was rejected by the center's board even though it did not have a solid promise from Boehringer. His company, Bio pTC Science Contract Production Corp. of Beltsville, had competed with the German company for the contract.

He has also complained to state legislators that the Boehringer facility would not help the state's burgeoning industry because it would become dependent on Boehringer's proprietary techniques to manufacture their products. "What they are proposing to do does not help the small biotech company," he said.

But Ms. Plantholt said it was Boehringer's expertise and proprietary techniques in manufacturing biotech drugs that the board believes is crucial if the center is to be successful. It was for that reason the board decided to take the risk of pursuing talks with Boehringer, she said.

"We are trying to teach Maryland companies how to run profitable operations. We needed to find an experienced company that could share that expertise with Maryland companies," she said. "We would rather lose Boehringer and have to go back to the state [and return the funds] and say this is not a viable enterprise than to spend it on something that is going to fail."

The state legislature approved $13 million last year for construction of the facility and is considering approving several million dollars more this session. The legislature stipulated that the center's board must raise $3 million in private funds to get the state money.

The center's board believes the facility should be operated by a company experienced in bioprocessing -- the technology used to make large quantities of a biotechnology drug. A small biotech company would contract with the center to make enough of its proprietary drug to use during clinical experiments. Those trials are critical to proving to the Food and Drug Administration that a drug is safe and effective.

If a company was successful in obtaining FDA approval, it might ask Boehringer to manufacture large quantities of the drug to market. The manufacturing would require a large scale facility, such as one that could be built in Baltimore.

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