Officials Tout Medicago's Tobacco-To-Vaccine Plant
|The ribbon cutting at Medicago's grand opening ceremony in Research Triangle Park.|
North Carolina’s complete package of business support, academic leadership and workforce preparedness has culminated in a major leap forward in vaccine manufacturing and worldwide security against pandemic disease.
More than 200 business and civic leaders and Medicago employees joined in a ribbon-cutting ceremony and tours of one of the most advanced and unusual biomanufacturing facilities anywhere -- the $42 million Medicago factory in Research Triangle Park.
The “platform” making Quebec-based Medicago unusual is its use of tobacco leaves to grow viral-like particles in a highly automated greenhouse. The particles are then extracted and processed in the 97,000-square-foot complex to become vaccines.
“When I grew up, tobacco was something you smoked or chewed or dipped,” quipped Gov. Beverly Perdue, who was joined by Senator Richard Burr and Congressman David Price in addressing the crowd Monday.
It’s an apt turnaround symbol for North Carolina, with its long-time dependence on these kinds of tobacco products bowing to the state’s emergence as a global leader in biotechnology and vaccine manufacturing.
Set to crank out flu vaccine by the millions
|Tobacco plants on the assembly line inside the greenhouse at Medicago.|
With an infusion of $21 million in funding from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the Medicago facility is designed to produce up to 120 million doses of pandemic flu vaccine and 40 million doses of seasonal influenza vaccine per year.
Because the tobacco platform takes only 34 days from seed-planting to harvest, the Medicago facility is the world’s fastest producer of vaccines. That’s a major advantage in cases of a pandemic flu outbreak or a bioterrorist release of viral pathogens.
The platform also bypasses the exposure to allergic reactions for people with egg sensitivity, since traditional vaccine production involves growing the medicine in eggs, which takes about six months.
Medicago has about 55 employees at the site, virtually all from North Carolina’s well-trained workforce, said CEO Andy Sheldon. The company plans to hire another 30 people as it spools up production to full capacity in 2015. He said Medicago now has 150 employees total, in the U.S., Quebec City and some in France.
CEO: North Carolina walks the talk
|Ceremony attendees take a tour of the office building.|
Sheldon told the celebrants that North Carolina has proven to be everything officials promised during initial discussions about the state's numerous advantages for Medicago. He called the North Carolina Biotechnology Center "a tremendous group, very supportive," and praised the seamless coordination of the Department of Commerce and other agencies and institutions within the state.
"It seems today that this is about a building, but it's really about people," said Sheldon. "We came to North Carolina for the workforce, and we've been able to hire extremely talented people. It's a truly powerful experience to get them in a room together. This state has so much to offer. We look forward to hiring more North Carolinians."
“Make no mistake, Medicago could have gone anywhere,” Perdue reminded the audience. But she noted that company officials were drawn not only by the state's tobacco heritage, but more significantly, by its job-ready workforce.
Protecting the national health and welfare
“This facility is of national importance,” said Price, who noted that he serves as the ranking minority member of the Homeland Security budget committee.
Burr called the Medicago facility "absolutely crucial to our ability to defend this country.”
“This is the 21st century manufacturing business,” said Burr. “It doesn’t look like what we’ve been accustomed to. But this is more what the world’s gonna look like. And we’ve got the workforce ready to go to that line.”
Mike Wanner, vice president of Medicago’s U.S. operations and head of the RTP site, noted that the company's platform technology is not only faster than other production methods, but also less expensive. Significantly, he said, it's also expected to be useful for producing a range of other products in the future, though he said he doesn't want to go public yet with other things Medicago has in its R&D pipeline.