Robust life sciences market poised for further growth
Recent newspaper headlines have heralded the outsized role that Maryland is playing in the quest for vaccines and therapeutics for COVID-19.
Adjacent to Johns Hopkins Bayview, the Emergent Biosolutions Inc. Center for Innovation in Advanced Development and Manufacturing recently landed a $135 million contract with Johnson & Johnson to help develop a COVID-19 vaccine and manufacture up to one billion doses. In the I-270 biotech corridor, GeneDx has reconfigured its lab space to conduct up to 5,000 COVID-19 tests daily while Vigene has entered into talks with half a dozen research firms to manufacture vaccine candidates. Meanwhile, hundreds of researchers at the University of Maryland system, Johns Hopkins University, federal laboratories and private companies around Maryland are working to develop vaccines, therapeutics, improved tests and supporting medical equipment.
The fourth-largest life sciences hub in the United States, Maryland is uniquely positioned to assist in efforts to ease the pandemic. Its COVID-19 work along with its recent advances in gene and cell therapies and other medical research has also placed the sector on a strong growth track. To realize that growth and achieve those medical advances, life sciences organizations need design, engineering and construction teams that can deliver a hefty list of extremely specialized projects.
Ernesto Chanona, Senior Manager of BioHealth and Life Sciences with the Maryland Department of Commerce, rattles off a smattering of current life sciences projects in the state. Near BWI Airport, Catalent – which acquired the Maryland company, Paragon Bioservices, for $1.2 billion in 2019 – is a few months away from completing 220,000 square feet of new laboratory and office space. (Paragon moved into a different, new, 150,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art manufacturing facility for gene therapies shortly before the takeover.) Eisai, a Japanese pharmaceutical company, is currently building a 40,000-square-foot production facility in Middle River. Cellular Biomedicine Group is part way through a 22,000-square-foot expansion of its advanced manufacturing facility for cell therapies in Rockville. And the list goes on.
“Maryland is a particularly attractive location for life sciences organizations,” said Chanona, a cancer immunologist and former researcher with the National Institutes of Health.
The state’s formidable background and expanding work in vaccines, blood and biologics is likely to drive significant growth in the life sciences sector, he added.
Building life sciences research and manufacturing facilities, not surprisingly, is complex, exacting and demanding.
New facilities range from 5,000 square feet to 500,000 square feet and contain many of the same building systems used in hospitals, but with additional capacity, features and redundancy.
“The 300,000 to 500,000-square-foot projects are generally contract manufacturing facilities,” said Raj Vora, Life Science Core Market Leader with DPR Construction.
Designed to serve research organizations, the facilities manufacture product for use in drug trials, largely specific to gene and cell therapies. One facility can house multiple separate and flexible suites which provide ultra-clean and secure environments.
“To keep those spaces clean, you pump a lot more air through them and a lot more frequently… you typically have dedicated HVAC systems for each suite,” Vora said. “We also build a lot of redundancy into these buildings. With research and manufacturing, if you have a power outage or a piece of equipment goes down during manufacturing, you could lose a whole batch, which affects downstream revenue and end-user customers, so these buildings have backup equipment.”
Roughly 75 to 80 percent of life sciences projects happen within existing buildings, which creates assorted challenges.
“Existing shell warehouses, especially tilt-up buildings, don’t have the infrastructure or the structural support needed. In those cases, we make structural modifications both to the concrete and the steel to make the building sound enough to handle the imposing loads,” he said.
Other projects involve expanding or upgrading facilities within an existing and operating life sciences research or manufacturing facility. GlaxoSmithKline, for example, contracted DPR to upgrade equipment that supplied its manufacturing facility in Rockville.
“We had to complete this work without any interruptions or disturbances to their manufacturing operations,” Vora said.
Extensive stakeholder consultations, project planning and pre-installation of some materials enabled the DPR project team to “strategically do all the work during a planned holiday shutdown. Over a five-day period, everyone worked 15 to 18 hours a day to get it done.”
Project schedules tend to be rapid and sometimes have to accommodate major design changes mid-course.
“Our customers are always racing to be the first…which puts quite a strain on construction teams, design teams and vendors,” he said. Furthermore, in a cutting-edge industry “you could be eight or nine months into an 18-month project when technology can change. Then you have to have the debate about whether you take the hit in cost and time to redesign or keep going with the older technology.”
Industry watchers expect the life sciences sector in Maryland to continue growing in the coming years.
COVID-19 is likely to create “a renewed and growing focus on traditional platforms, such as mass production of vaccines and therapeutics” as well as “increased attention on how to accelerate time-to-market for those products through prefabricated manufacturing of components,” Vora said.
Montgomery College is in the process of establishing a life sciences center and Port Covington is designed to become a life sciences industry center, Chanona said. In addition, the state has mounted a major initiative to help life sciences companies tap into expertise, licensing opportunities and contract research opportunities at the National Institutes of Health, Walter Reid Strategic Army Research, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, the biological defense center at Fort Detrick and other federal laboratories, as well opportunities with academic organizations, private sector companies and incubator facilities.