Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Engineering a phase-by-phase biotech expansion

United Therapeutics in downtown Silver Spring continues its research as it prepares to add two more buildings

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Photo courtesy of United Therapeutics
The first new building housing United Therapeutics’ laboratories held its grand opening last year. When the three-building complex is completed in 2010, it will extend across Cameron Street.
Scientists in all white — from their hairnets and lab coats down to the booties over their shoes — monitor bioreactors in laboratories of purified air at the recently completed United Therapeutics building in downtown Silver Spring.

The four-story building at 1040 Spring St. is only the first of what will be the biotech company’s three-building headquarters, which will eventually extend across Cameron Street.

But scientists are already working on an oral form of Remodulin — approved as an injection by the Food and Drug Administration in 2002 for the treatment of pulmonary arterial hypertension — and an ovarian cancer drug called OvaRex, which is in its final stage of testing.

‘‘Even if you have one drug that you know works, you can’t stop there,” United Therapeutics Executive Vice President Paul Mahon said inside a first-floor lab dedicated to experimenting with the existing drugs. ‘‘Biotech is a risky business and you always have to have alternatives and backups.”

United Therapeutics develops drugs for patients with ‘‘orphan” diseases, rare diseases that generally affect fewer than 200,000 people in the United States. It completed its first Silver Spring building last June and hopes to have built the entire campus by 2011, according to Mahon.

Ensuring that the facility complies with FDA standards and meets all the requirements necessary to ensure credible research — such as creating purified water to avoid contamination and constantly circulating air — can be as much work as the research itself.

The bottom floor of the building houses the company’s quality assurance and quality care departments, which are devoted to ensuring that both the final products and the internal procedures meet requirements. An air-controlled room stores all of the SOPs, or Standard Operating Procedures, which Mahon and Associate Director of Facilities Robert Siemerling joked apply to all aspects — major or minor — of running the building and developing the drugs.

‘‘There is probably an SOP for the SOPs,” Mahon said.

The top floor of the building is crowded with water pipes, air circulation devices and measuring equipment, which Siemerling explained are used to purify outdoor air and rainwater to a level where they can be used for laboratory purposes.

The floors in between are where the drug development and production occurs — and where the company makes its name.

The Remodulin operation, whose revenues have been growing at 40 percent a year since 2002, according to Mahon, was originally based in Chicago but was transferred to Silver Spring last year. Mahon said that 75 percent of the scientists moved with the company and that 60 percent of them live within a mile or two of the headquarters. Including the OvaRex operation, which is also based out of Silver Spring, the total number of employees in the city has grown from 20 employees three years ago to 100 today.

‘‘It is hard to build a biotech company in a downtown campus, but we kind of have a commitment to Silver Spring because we were born there 11 years ago,” Mahon said. ‘‘We want to grow where we’re from.”

Representatives from the company appeared last week before the Montgomery County Planning Board to ask for slight modifications to their building permit to allow for an increase in laboratory space. A team of diverse partners that included architects, an artist and the director of the American Film Institute’s Silver Theatre and Cultural Center spoke about the updated design for the campus, the portion that will be most visible to residents.

‘‘We want to be as innovative on the outside as we hope we are on the inside,” Mahon said of the three-phase, 200,000-square-foot project that has been approved for the corner of Spring and Cameron streets. ‘‘We wanted more lab and more ‘cool.’”

The first phase, which cost about $43 million, has already been completed, and the adjacent phase two, a seven-story office building with three floors of lab, is expected to be completed by 2009. The third building will be located across Cameron Street and will be linked to the rest of the campus by a pedestrian connector between the buildings at the seventh floor and will hopefully be completed by 2011, according to Mahon. Phases two and three are expected to cost between $60 million and $70 million each, according to Mahon.

All buildings will have solar panels on their roofs and Mahon said that the headquarters will boast of the largest array of solar panels within the Beltway upon completion of the project.

The project planners also have devoted space for public use. The first floor of the buildings will be reserved for retail and Mahon said that the company hopes to use rent subsidies to recruit local businesses. A courtyard with benches made by an artist in Argentina, motion-sensitive lights and a ‘‘Bio Wall” displaying science-related videos will be open to the public, who will also be able to congregate in the glass-walled lobby.

Gary Stith, director of the Silver Spring Regional Center, said the company has made presentations to community groups who have been receptive to the idea of more high-tech jobs, and Planning Board Chairman Royce Hanson was equally impressed, as the board voted to approve the building plan modifications.

‘‘This is an excellent project — the fact that we don’t have anyone here complaining is evidence in one sense, but that is the least of the evidence,” he said at the meeting. ‘‘It is an imaginative piece of work and the kind of design we hope to see regularly.”