Outsourcing Gives NC a 'SuperScieNCe' to CRO About

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When it comes to the $24 billion outsourced drug development industry, North Carolina is the undisputed – and still undefeated – heavyweight champion of the world.

North Carolina is home to 128 contract research organizations (CROs) employing over 21,000 people within the state and tens of thousands of others around the world. These companies support pharmaceutical, biotech and medical device companies and research institutions with a wide range of services, including biopharmaceutical development, biologic assay development, commercialization, preclinical and clinical research and clinical trials management.

A study of the state’s life science landscape says this specialized field of outsourced drug development is one of six emerging life science technology sectors likely to flourish into the future. The Battelle Technology Partnership Practice identified the areas based on its analysis of innovation, research and industry activity among the state’s universities and companies. The North Carolina Biotechnology Center has labeled the six “SuperScieNCe.”

North Carolina’s CRO industry is a diverse mix. It includes large multi-nationals such as:

Mid-sized organizations headquartered in the state and large multi-nationals with North Carolina campuses include:

There’s also a full complement of small, targeted CROs, many the result of churn in the industry and an entrepreneurial spirit statewide that has driven North Carolina to the top tier of life science clusters.

Small-scale contracts and agreements for clinical support work had been part of pharmaceutical research practice across the nation and around the world for years before the CRO industry took flight in North Carolina in the 1980s.

That’s when Dennis Gillings, London born and newly minted as a University of North Carolina biostatistics professor, and fellow biostatistics faculty member Gary Koch, co-founded a consulting company they called Quintiles to apply their data-analytics skills to pharmaceutical development. Gillings resigned his faculty post to devote full time to building what is today the world’s largest provider of biopharmaceutical development and commercial outsourcing services. Quintiles, which raised $947 million in a public stock offering in 2013, does business in about 100 countries and has helped develop or commercialize all of the top-75 best-selling drugs on the market.

Just three years after Quintiles’ founding in Chapel Hill, Fred Eshelman, who’d earned a bachelor’s degree at UNC, founded a one-man pharmaceutical consulting business called Pharmaceutical Product Development (PPD). The company grew robustly and became a publicly traded company before being sold in 2011 to two investment firms for $3.9 billion. Today Wilmington-based PPD employs about 14,000 people at offices in 46 countries.

In 2008 PRA Health Sciences located its headquarters in Raleigh, becoming the latest heavyweight CRO to call North Carolina home. PRA has more than 11,000 employees in 80-plus offices worldwide. PRA has worked on more than 100 marketed drugs and conducted the pivotal or supportive trials that led to FDA and/or international regulatory approval of more than 50 such drugs.

It’s been said you can’t stand in the Research Triangle and throw a pill in any direction without hitting someone with CRO connections. And Battelle sees that only getting bigger and better in even more North Carolinians’ futures.

Barry Teater, NCBiotech Writer
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