E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


Colorado courts French biotech company

(Sunday, Dec. 14, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- MSNBC: Officials of Meristem Therapeutics visited the state earlier this month meeting with agriculture officials, the governor and venture capitalists. The company uses plants to create proteins -- particularly antibodies -- that can be used in pharmaceuticals.

Colorado venture capitalists who met with company officials say Meristem's technology and products are promising because they could help drug makers develop products faster and cheaper.

State biotech officials say the company -- which may locate headquarters here as well as other operations -- would be a big boost to the state's profile as a biotechnology center. But the process by which Meristem creates its products is controversial, which could create funding problems and a public backlash.

The state Department of Agriculture was criticized in May after clearing a permit proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It allows the planting of up to 30 acres of corn in northeastern Colorado to produce an experimental drug designed to help people with cystic fibrosis.

"There's a lot of concern obviously that you are introducing something of a highly toxic nature into the environment. I think the science behind this type of technology can be relied upon, and if done under certain circumstances, there need not be over-concern about the potential downside to growing these crops in Colorado," said Jim Miller, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture. "There are a lot of fears that are thrown against the wall. ... None stuck."

Founded in 1997, Meristem's headquarters are located in Clermont-Ferrand, France. A U.S. subsidiary has been opened in Cambridge, Mass., and the company employs more than 60 people, spokesman Emmanuel Boures said via e-mail.

Its most advanced project, currently in Phase II clinical trials, involves gastric lipase, a protein used to treat people with cystic fibrosis or pancreatitis who do not produce enough enzymes for digestion. These patients can experience diarrhea and weight loss.

Meristem said its treatment, which is made by genetically modifying plants and later extracting proteins from the plant tissues, will be safer and more effective than current drugs and will allow more patients to get relief.

During the company's recent visit, from Dec. 1-4, Meristem officials met with Gov. Bill Owens, state legislators, state university officials, venture capitalists and city and county officials, said John Cevette, executive director of the Colorado Corn Growers Association.

"I think we are in the running for the location of their U.S. headquarters," he said. "If we are able to attract a plant-made pharmaceutical operation here, we know that this means our producers will have the opportunity to grow a value-added corn product, and that's very important."

Meristem is researching whether to open a facility in Rifle, according to the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.

"We have not yet planned the exact location, form and nature of our site. We shall make our decision in a few months," Boures said. "This visit is the first of three steps that will determine if we will carry out our U.S. operations in Colorado. The second step will involve finding investors. The final step will be determining the location."

Boures said company officials were pleased with the visit.

"Colorado seems very interested by our project to produce pharmaceutical active compounds in plants. Moreover, they have a very good know-how in farming and research," he said. "The visit was very prepared and very professional, and people were very welcoming."

Denise Brown, executive director of the Colorado Bioscience Association, said the industry group supports Meristem's move here.

"Of course we would love to have them here. It would bring ... a new aspect of the biotechnology industry to the state of Colorado," she said. "Colorado should be aggressive in pursuing that industry, and Meristem is the first opportunity we have to do so."

Local venture capitalists said Meristem's way of developing proteins could help meet a growing need in the pharmaceutical industry. Proteins are an important part of making prescription drugs.

"There is a huge capacity problem for manufacturing and developing of therapeutic proteins right now, so there is a big supply/demand imbalance, and it's only going to grow," said venture capitalist Dan Mitchell, a partner with Sequel Partners in Boulder. "On the whole, it's a pretty interesting concept. There is a big need for it, so I would guess the venture community should be pretty interested."

The Rocky Mountain Farmers Union (RMFU), however, is concerned that Meristem's operations could contaminate other farmers' crops.

"We are kind of the skunk at the picnic at the moment. ... There hasn't been enough information out there for [farmers] to make the best decision they absolutely could make," said John Stencel, president of the RMFU. "It's been a very interesting discussion, and I'm sure it's not over yet."

Source: http://famulus.msnbc.com/famuluscom/bizjournal12-13-010146.asp?bizj=DEN#body