BASKING RIDGE, NJ – With its big pharma base shriveling and its voters unwilling to support large-scale state spending for stem cell research, New Jersey will anchor its life-science effort going forward on its ability to host clinical trials for drugs under development, the state's top science policy official told an audience of industry professionals and others on Thursday.
Peter Reczek, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology, said the Garden State will build on its base of medical schools and other research institutions by working with them to expand the state's number of facilities capable of hosting clinical trials.
"What we're trying to basically do is differentiate ourselves from the rest of the world and develop an expertise that is clearly going to be very sought after," Reczek told BioRegion News minutes after addressing a meeting of the Licensing Executives Society's New Jersey Chapter, held here at the Basking Ridge Country Club.
"And we have the luxury of time, because the field is young enough that it will take a while" — three to five years, he estimated — "before things seriously get going into the clinic."
During his talk, and in a follow-up interview, Reczek also said that New Jersey is weeks away from launching a database intended to assist life-sci entrepreneurs, and that the state will work to strengthen its medical device industry.
Those efforts, and especially the move toward clinical trials, come as leaders in industry, academia, and government wrestle with how to grow New Jersey's life sciences sector as its base of pharma giants shrivels through industry consolidation.
While New Jersey has within its borders facilities for 15 of the world's 20 largest pharma companies, the state's workforce within those and other pharma companies has shrunk significantly in recent years. Between 1990 and 2008, New Jersey's pharma workforce shrank to 37,800 from 42,000 jobs, lowering the state's share of the nation's pharma jobs during that period to 13 percent from 20 percent, according to figures from Rutgers University's Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.
That number is likely to shrink further as several mergers take shape or get completed this year. In one example, Roche disclosed plans in March to cut more than 1,500 jobs — especially in its marketing and sales divisions — in Nutley, NJ, where it plans to still keep 1,600 researchers and scientists. Additional New Jersey job cuts are expected once Pfizer completes its $68 billion acquisition of Wyeth, and Merck completes its $41 billion purchase of Schering-Plough.
The most recent sign of industry trouble: The number of pharma industry jobs in the "Greater Philadelphia" region that includes southern and central New Jersey shrunk by 12 percent, or 3,611, jobs between 2002 and 2007, to 26,417 from 30,028 jobs, according to The Greater Philadelphia Life Sciences Cluster 2009: An Economic and Comparative Assessment, a report issued last week by the Milken Institute at the Biotechnology Industry Organization's 2009 BIO International Convention in Atlanta.
Life After Stem Cells
New Jersey had hoped in recent years to rebuild its life-sci sector as a mecca of regenerative medicine activity, but in 2007, state voters stunned Gov. Jon Corzine and life-sci leaders by defeating a $450 million bond issue intended to fund peer-reviewed research projects approved by the state science and technology commission, following parallel campaigns against the measure by anti-tax activists and Roman Catholic bishops [BRN, Nov. 16, 2007].
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Just a year ago, Corzine said he would resurrect the stem cell referendum [BRN, May 5, 2008]. But by this past winter, the state halted construction on its planned New Jersey Stem Cell Research Institute, which would have been based in New Brunswick.
Furthermore, in his proposed budget for FY 2010, Corzine proposed eliminating the $34.5 million set aside for stem cell activity in FY 2009, including $20.7 million in funds for research grants, and $13.8 million toward a facility for the stem cell institute.
Also this year, Corzine – a Democrat who is seeking re-election this year – and other New Jersey officials have struggled to plug a budget shortfall that ballooned from $2.1 billion in January to $3.6 billion the following month, then dipped to $3.1 billion in March as the state cut its contribution to the employee pension fund by $500 million.
Earlier this month, the state's budget hole grew by another $1.2 billion after tax collections for March and April fell $747 million short of projections, or 38 percent below last year's level.
The red ink has been blamed on the ongoing economic upheaval, all but precluding the prospect of additional multi-million-dollar state borrowing efforts.
Reczek said the move toward more clinical trial activity could boost New Jersey's prospects for growing its stem cell activity, but the state is not focused on growing that or any other sub-sector within its life-sci cluster.
"What we're trying to do throughout the state of New Jersey is to stimulate, enhance, build, grow — whatever adjective you can think of — the clinical trial capacity for the state," he said. "You hear about a couple of high-profile clinical trials, but in fact, the number of clinical trials and the number of products is few and far between, so the field itself is really pretty immature.
"However, at some point, all of this work is going to coalesce, and the really sort of great limiting step of getting products out the door will be the clinical trials piece. So we're trying now to redirect some of the money that we're using for stem cell research to building up clinical trials capacity so we can address that issue when it comes up in about three or four years," Reczek said.
One sign of growing state interest in clinical trials: The state-funded University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in New Brunswick plans to double its current annual volume of 500 clinical trials by consolidating its clinical research labs developed through collaborations with biotech and pharma industry partners into a common clinical research organization, Judith Ladd, director of industry and academic alliances for UMDNJ, told the weekly business publication NJBIZ last month.
"We have tremendous resources in terms of UMDNJ, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, UMDNJ [campuses in] Newark and Camden, lots of hospitals," Reczek said in his LES-NJ address. "We have a huge population density. This is the mother lode if you're in clinical trials, and yet we don't have the infrastructure to support clinical trials, and we are trying desperately to grow that."
The 'Next Frontier'
Another life-sci sub-sector New Jersey hopes to grow, Reczek said, is its community of medical device companies and researchers.
The Garden State is less known in that sphere than Minnesota and several other Midwestern states that have built on their manufacturing legacy industries – even though New Jersey has a concentration of med device companies within the nation's top 10 states, according to Technology Talent and Capital: State Bioscience Initiatives 2008, a study of New Jersey's life-sci industry released last year by BIO and the Battelle Memorial Foundation.
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But that report paints an overall mixed picture of New Jersey's med device sector: The state's number of med device jobs fell 5.3 percent between 2001 and 2006, to 14,833 jobs, though the number of med device establishments during that period rose by 5.5 percent, to 537.
"Medical devices, to me, is the next frontier, in life sciences at least," Reczek told LES-NJ attendees. "There's a lot of interest in starting to move toward medical devices of different kinds, and we need to be there for the future. So we're starting to look at ways in which to try to promote that area."
Key to that effort, Reczek told BRN, is for New Jersey to help researchers from academia and industry to collaborate and coordinate their activities. Answering an audience question, he said the state's competitive position just behind the nation's largest life-sci clusters like the San Francisco Bay Area and Boston/Cambridge, Mass., reflects New Jersey's doing less to promote industry-academic collaboration until now.
He cautioned, though, that even Silicon Valley didn't develop into a collaboration powerhouse overnight, and that New Jersey will need years for its life-sci culture to evolve beyond drug development occurring through pharma giants working alone, toward teams of professionals working to create, then test new therapeutics together.
"If you're trying to address a particular medical need with a device, you not only need biologists and medical doctors and all that, but you also need engineers, mathematicians, and computer scientists, and all these other people as well," Reczek said. "It comes back to the collaboration — you have to get collaboration with people across the boundaries that ordinarily are part of the kind of field that they're in, and they have to start looking outside of where they've been. To the extent that we can get folks to start doing that, I think will help up in the medical device area.
"But having said that, we have very qualified, very important scientists in all those areas. They're just not linked. So we've got to find a way to link them," he added.
In med devices and all other life-sci segments, Reczek said, New Jersey needs to grow its number of early-stage businesses and its community of entrepreneurs capable of running them. One help toward that end, he said, will be the forthcoming launch of a new database that will collect on a single website the university- and research institute-generated patents and patent technologies available for commercialization.
"I'm looking to do it by the middle of the summer, end of July-ish," Reczek told BRN, adding that a firm date has not been set.
He said he sees that database of patents "as the first step to a much larger online-created entrepreneurial network" that would, through a single click, be a more valuable tool for New Jersey entrepreneurs: "You could find a list of angel investors. You might be able to find staff by doing that."