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Moneysaving Idea Earns Grant from UMass President

Funds Will Establish Biopharmaceutical Consortium

Xu and Yoon
Asst. Prof. Seongkyu Yoon, right, with Asst. Prof. Jin Xu at the Massachusetts BioManufacturing Center at UMass Lowell.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

A proposal by chemical engineering Asst. Prof. Seongkyu Yoon to help the biopharmaceutical industry — and ultimately consumers — save money has received a grant from the UMass President’s Office.

President Jack Wilson established the Science and Technology Initiatives Funds grants in 2004 to “seed the breakthroughs and discoveries of tomorrow” and to “advance strategic university research priorities.”

Yoon and his colleagues will receive $130,000 for one year for the project, which aims to create a biopharmaceutical process and quality consortium.

A Multi-Billion-Dollar Market

“Biopharmaceuticals, which include recombinant proteins, monoclonal antibodies and nucleic acid-based products, is the fastest-growing sector within the pharmaceutical industry,” says Yoon.

He says approximately one in every four drugs introduced to the market is biopharmaceutical. In 2008, the global antibody therapeutics market was estimated at $16.7 billion, with 400 drugs in clinical trials and 700 in pre-clinical development that target more than 100 diseases.

However, developing biopharmaceutical products in the current system is not only inefficient and costly, but is also becoming increasingly challenging.

“Manufacturing these products is a highly specialized and complex process because each protein molecule is unique in its characteristics and requires specific processes of production and purification,” says Yoon.

He says industry may be able to save 20 percent of its total cost of goods — approximately $6 billion per year — through improved biomanufacturing approaches.

“The consortium will help industry achieve this potential saving and improve the productivity, quality and cost for biopharmaceutical products, which in turn can mean huge savings for consumers,” says Yoon.

Helping Industry Overcome Challenges

“We will use the funds from the UMass President’s Office to launch the biopharmaceutical consortium rather than support a specific research program,” says Yoon. “For example, the consortium — which will be composed of manufacturers, government agencies, academic centers and suppliers of equipment and raw materials — will promote industrial collaborations, host workshops, and develop and coordinate marketing strategies, among others. These will help members in leveraging their efforts and overcoming biomanufacturing challenges.”

Yoon is the principal investigator (PI) for the project, with chemistry Asst. Prof. Jin Xu and chemical engineering Assoc. Prof. Carl Lawton, director of the Massachusetts BioManufacturing Center at UMass Lowell, as co-PIs. Four other projects involving researchers from the Amherst, Boston, Dartmouth and Worcester campuses also received funding from Wilson.

Yoon says this year, sales of biopharmaceutical products are expected to exceed $135 billion.

“Massachusetts is well positioned to become the country’s leading state based on the biopharmaceutical innovation index,” he says.