Area celebrates 10 years of biotechnology advances


Valinda Bronte and Jeannie Deegan at 10th Annual Celebration of Biotechnology at RTI Biologics on Thursday in Alachua.

Suzanna Mars/Correspondent for Gainesville Magazin
Published: Thursday, May 9, 2013 at 6:03 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 9, 2013 at 6:03 p.m.

ALACHUA — Imagine a future where every time you take your medications, your body sends a message to your doctor.

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Valinda Bronte and Jeannie Deegan at 10th Annual Celebration of Biotechnology at RTI Biologics on Thursday in Alachua.

Suzanna Mars/Correspondent for Gainesville Magazin

And your doctor also would know when you don't take them.

This medical message in a bottle would come in an ibuprofen-sized capsule lined with wiring that would send a signal to your doctor that starts after you swallow the medication and it hits your gastric juices.

Inventions like this one — from Newberry-based company "etect" — are being developed, as the saying goes, right in our backyard.

But if you live in Gainesville, you're entitled to that cliche. Thirty biotechnology companies housed at RTI Biologics in Progress Corporate Park in Alachua are giving the area an internationally recognized reputation in biotechnology, and Thursday marked a 10-year anniversary celebration of these developments.

"The event began in our back patio 10 years ago," said Patti Breedlove, the associate director of the Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator.

Gradually, the event has expanded to include booths with more than 70 spin-off companies and outside vendors. It's free and open to the public, and primarily a networking event, Breedlove said.

"It puts the spotlight on our growth in the biotechnology sector," she said.

Biotechnology is the use of living organisms such as bacteria or enzymes for drugs and other applications. Those applications, as evidenced by the companies featured Thursday, span gene therapy to tissue repair and cancer therapy.

Eleven percent of the country's biotech companies are based in Florida, and many of those are in this area.

Chantelle Gomez, a senior research associate with Applied Genetic Technologies Corp., explained on Thursday that the company is working on gene therapy for eye conditions that cause blindness. Scientists there have figured out a way to reverse these conditions by delivering healthy copies of the faulty genes to the ocular cells.

Unlike other therapies, with gene therapy, "It's a one-time dose and you are cured," Gomez said. She added that trials with the therapy have produced positive results, which bodes well for eventual FDA approval.

"We are at the very edge of getting approval," Gomez said. The company was highlighted on Thursday for receiving $37.5 million in venture capital investments.

Gomez said that working on such cutting-edge and transformative therapies is inspiring and makes the "hum-drumness" of lab work worthwhile.

"When you step back, these people who couldn't see before now can see, and we're not slapping them with a $200,000-a-year therapy," she said.

Breedlove added: "This is not just academic research. It gets to the market. So it's a win for Gainesville, a win for Alachua, and really even a win for Florida."

Those "wins" have reached national and international scale recently. Spinoff company Nanotherapeutics, based in Alachua, won a Department of Defense contract worth more than $200 million in March, and shortly thereafter, the University of Florida's Sid Martin Biotech Incubator was named 2013 international Incubator of the Year by the National Business Incubation Association.

The DOD contract is expected to provide 150 new jobs with an average salary of $90,000.

Other highlights presented Thursday include $20.8 million in financing for AxoGen and Syngenta's acquisition of Pasteuria Bioscience for $113 million.

Nancy Bryan, the new CEO and president of BioFlorida, the bioscience industry association representing the companies, which also sponsored Thursday's event, said, "My goal is that by the 20th anniversary, Florida will not only be known for its sun, beaches and oranges but its vibrant life sciences community."

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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