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Greenwood Genetic Center sees Clemson investment as milestone

September 18, 2013

Greenwood Genetic Center By Mike Fitts colanews@scbiznews.com Published Sept. 18, 2013 Clemson University and the Greenwood Genetic Center have taken an important step in building their partnership, but leaders of the effort say they have a big example to follow: the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research. This summer Clemson and the center announced plans for a new 17,000-square-foot genetics research center to be built in the Greenwood Research Park. The park features 165 acres available for research and development projects related to medicine and genetics. Karl B. Kelly, Clemson’s director of commercialization and technology incubation, said the university’s strengths in life sciences and biology make this affiliation just as logical as CU-ICAR’s relationship with the automotive sector. “It’s a very powerful opportunity for us,” Kelly said. In the photo, Lynn Rimsky, research laboratory technologist, prepares to load a sample to analyze gene expression. (Photo/Greenwood Genetic Center) Kelly isn’t necessarily talking about the total scale of the collaboration, but the size of the opportunity he sees in the fields of genetics and pharmaceutical research and production. In taking science and technology from basic research to commercial applications with business partners, CU-ICAR provides a smart model to emulate, Kelly said. This new Clemson project is an important milepost in the two entities’ eight years of cooperation, said Steven A. Skinner, director of the Greenwood Genetic Center. While the new facilities won’t be a huge building, it’s a big move forward in collaboration. “This is a major, big step for us,” Skinner said. “We hope this is the key that will start bringing in partnerships.” Now Clemson will have five faculty members doing basic genetics research in Greenwood, along with up to 15 graduate assistants once the project is fully up to speed. “We hope that’s just the beginning,” Skinner said. An opening date for the new building still is up in the air as the process of design continues, Skinner said. Skinner notes that CU-ICAR has the kind of fuel that the genetics center still lacks: huge private partners such as BMW and Michelin to quickly ramp up the investment. Seeking partners Clemson and the genetic center are in promising discussions with business partners, Kelly said. He expects that they will have new partners from the commercial sector to announce in the next six months. The Clemson partnership already has put Greenwood’s potential on the radar for some business partners, according to Mark Warner, CEO of the Greenwood Partnership Alliance. After years of pursuing growth in the sector, “it is a time for optimism,” Warner said. With Clemson aboard, attracting that first private company in the sector to set up its own facility on the Greenwood campus is the next milestone to reach, said Warner, whose group pursues economic development for the park. The genetics expertise of the center and Clemson’s presence as a major research university gives the park what should prove to be an attractive combination for corporate partners, Warner said. Small and mid-size firms are more likely partners for the collaboration for now, Skinner said. The success of those firms could be key to attracting the biggest players in pharmaceuticals or medicine, he said. In today’s economy, smaller firms who show promise frequently are acquisition targets, merging with the major players instead of becoming major players themselves, Skinner said. According to Skinner and Kelly, the opportunities offered by the Clemson-GGC collaboration fall into three categories: Diagnostics: There are abundant possibilities to use genetic research for earlier diagnosis of human diseases, Kelly said. As one example, Skinner highlights the possibilities for earlier diagnosis of autism, a disease that it being diagnosed now with great frequency in American children. It’s a disease that manifests as a child grows, but a better diagnostic test of blood could find the genetic components that make it likely long before symptoms manifest, Skinner said. The center also has research strengths in several neurological ailments akin to autism, such as Fragile X syndrome and Rett syndrome. These diagnostic projects are the closest to moving through trials and into the realm of clinical deployment, Skinner said. Skinner notes that the GGC and its on-campus partner, the Self Research Institute of Human Genetics, together have a huge storehouse of genetic and biochemical data on patients, going back years or even decades. That’s a treasure trove for researchers looking at long-term projects. Clemson offers the partnership its years of work on human, animal and plant genetics through its biosciences research, Kelly said. It also brings to the table a wealth of computing power through its Clemson University Cyber Institute. That’s a great tool for the huge amount of data analysis needed in genetic research and genome sequencing. “It’s important to have that supercomputer,” Kelly said. Companion Diagnostics: The field uses genetic information to assess the effectiveness of a medical treatment. In areas such as oncology, the goal is to help a medical team assess the proper course of cancer treatment for a each patient. Epigenetic Therapeutics: In this field, the goal is to make needed medical corrections inside the genetic code of cells. In almost all current medical treatments, the medical effect takes through changes induced through the body’s circulatory or other systems. Epigenetic therapeutics, Kelly said, is the effort to work on the sub-cellular level. This is an emerging field, Kelly said, but clinical trial of several pharmaceutical products that fall under the category of epigenetic therapeutics is under way. Such clinical trials provide an economic, as well as research, boost to South Carolina, according to a recent report from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. According to the report, the state’s biopharmaceutical industry supported more than 18,000 jobs in South Carolina in 2011. The field directly employed 4,800 people with an average salary of about $73,000, the report said. The sector directly generated $2.4 billion in economic output in the state in 2011 and supported an additional $1.8 billion in products and services, the report said.