High-tech Science Making Real-life Impact

High-tech Science Making Real-life Impact

High-tech Science Making Real-life Impact

By: Erin Hemme Froslie

Today there are between 25 and 30 million Americans living with a rare disease. Thousands of these patients are waiting for a cure, a cure that likely will have its start in a Fargo-grown biotechnology firm.
 
Aldevron is the world’s leading manufacturer of plasmid DNA, the base material used in gene and cell therapy, gene editing and immunotherapy. It’s a critical ingredient for laboratories in the booming fields of biotechnology and biopharmaceuticals.
 
Essentially, Aldevron makes the DNA that will help its clients cure people of all sorts of diseases. “We know patients are waiting,” says Michael Chambers, founder and president of Aldevron. “That’s why we’re trying to find ways to do it better, faster. That’s what motivates us.”
 
Last fall, Aldevron moved into its new headquarters in southwest Fargo near the Microsoft campus.
 
The 70,000-square-foot building is the largest and most advanced DNA facility in the world. About 300 people work at the corporate center, but there is room to grow on the 14 surrounding acres. Chambers expects the firm will ultimately have up to 800 employees in Fargo.
 
In addition, Aldevron has facilities in Madison, Wisconsin, and Freiberg, Germany devoted to, respectfully, protein and antibody development.
 
The company’s expansion has brought it a long way from the small lab at North Dakota State University where Aldevron was founded by Chambers and John Ballantyne in 1983. Chambers was graduating with degrees in microbiology, biotechnology and chemistry. Ballantyne, who now serves as the company’s chief scientific officer, was doing graduate work in pharmaceutical sciences.
 
Despite its humble beginnings, Aldevron had the good fortune of coming of age as the industry exploded. That has ensured not only the firm’s growth, but its ability to be one of the leaders in an industry that is changing rapidly.
 

“We had a sense of what was possible, but nobody knew how fast this industry would grow,” Chambers says. “It still feels like it’s the early days. We’re making Model T’s right now, and we know we’ll be building Ferraris soon.”
 

So far, three gene therapies have been approved in the U.S. – two for cancer, a third for blindness. Another 900 are in development.

For its role in the process, Aldevron acts as a Xerox printer, making billions of copies of edited DNA for its clients. The technology also exists that allows scientists to create the genetic tool that edits DNA like a word processor. 
 
While Aldevron can’t disclose many of its clients, the company has played a supporting role in nearly every gene therapy discovery that makes headlines. Those success stories are powerful – and a reminder that high-tech science has real-life impact.
 
For example, there is Sarepta, a biopharmaceutical company that focuses on the discovery and development of genetic medicine to treat rare neuromuscular diseases. The company has made some progress in addressing 
duchenne muscular dystrophy, a genetic disorder that causes progressive weakness so that most patients have to use a wheelchair by the time they are 13.
 
And there is the story of Emily Whitehead of Philipsburg, Pennsylvania. She had been diagnosed with lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common childhood cancer in the US. About 90 percent of young patients recover with chemotherapy treatment. But Emily was one of the few who didn’t respond to treatment.
 
In 2012, she became the first pediatric patient to be treated with CAR-T cell therapy, where doctors manipulate a patient’s immune cells to treat his or her cancer. She is now cancer-free.
 
At Aldevron’s Fargo facility, there are four production lines across 32 rooms, allowing the company to make 12 to 15 biological drugs at once.
 
Each room is aceptic, and only trained Aldevron employees are allowed within the work areas that house fermenters and bioreactors. Windows and closed-circuit cameras allow clients and regulatory agencies to monitor what is happening as the biomaterials are replicated in quantities acceptable for both 
research trials and commercial endeavors.
 
Aldevron’s geographical location in Fargo has supported its success. Business costs are low compared to housing a similar site elsewhere in the U.S. In addition, the company has access to highly educated employees who demonstrate a strong, Midwestern work ethic. Many of its Fargo employees have connections to the local colleges, including NDSU, Concordia College, Minnesota State University Moorhead and area technical schools. 
 
The firm is constantly looking to innovate and advance its technologies, Chambers says. Even as there is a growing demand for the services and products Aldevron provides, biotech is progressing rapidly. A sense of exploration and adventure is key as the firm moves forward.
 
Today, Aldevron supports those keeping generations of people dying from genetic diseases. Tomorrow, that technology will be helping us all live better, healthier lives.
 
“We know that someday gene therapy will be applied to general wellness,” Chambers says. “Everyone is going to benefit from what we do today.”
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