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Nancy Smith

Torrey Pines: Turning Up the Heat for Medical Research in Florida

February 28, 2015 - 6:00pm

In case you think most of the jobs that came to Florida in the last 12 years did little to change the state's tourism-ag-real estate culture, you've missed the mating dance of the governor's office and the biotech industry.

Nonprofit Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies, which established its headquarters in Port St. Lucie in 2008, exemplifies all the things that are right about biotech and the burgeoning life sciences industry in Florida.

Even in such a short time, even with the recession and subsequent downturn in federal grant money -- to hear university researchers tell it -- Torrey Pines is a huge success story.

"This institute issaving statewide research facilities millions," said Toby Overdorf, president of Crossroads Environmental Consultants Inc., who sits on Torrey Pines' board. "And I'm not sure some people know how good they are."

To the uninitiated in life sciences, the work Torrey Pines does to create its "libraries" of 30 million drug-like compounds and billions of peptoids -- work going on for the last 25 years -- isn't easily explained.Right now it is engrossed in its Florida Drug Discovery Acceleration Program. FLDDAP, as it's known, begun in July 2013 with support from the Florida governors office and the state Legislature.

The program's primary purpose is to accelerate the process of identifying potential therapeutics by providing researchers -- or collaborators -- at universities and nonprofit institutes throughout Florida with libraries of chemical compounds along with screening technologies from Torrey Pines.They become 50-50 partners, Torrey Pines and their collaborators.

"That's what the state Department of Health likes about us," says Greg Welmarker, Torrey Pineschief operating officer. "When we send our compounds to a collaborator, we have to be successful in the selection process. We were asked to deliver 10 [positional scanning libraries] from July 2013 to June 2014. We delivered 28.In the first six months of this fiscal year, we've already delivered 22 -- so we've met the annual metrics and now we're pushing ahead for more."

A testimonial from Shaun P. Brothers, at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine, backs up Overdorf's statement. I have five programs currently running with the outstanding scientists at Torrey Pines ... These programs include testing for novel drugs for autism and cancer, among others.

"The only way I could even attempt to find new drugs for these diseases is by screening for new compounds. To do this, I would typically have to screen through millions of compounds at a cost of 20 cents per compound. This becomes prohibitively expensive very quickly and in this poor funding environment is nearly impossible. However, with the Torrey system ... I have already screened some 20 million compounds, at a cost of only a few thousand dollars. This program has easily saved me over$2 million in resources that I would have otherwise needed to find.

It was Jeb Bush and the incentive program that lured Torrey Pines to Florida in 2007, said company founder, President and CEO Richard Houghton. In fact, the endeavor didn't just involvethe state of Florida Innovation Incentive Fund, it also enlisted the cooperation of the city of Port St. Lucie, Core Communities, the Economic Development Council of St. Lucie County, Florida Atlantic University, and St. Lucie County.

Though Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies maintains a presence in San Diego, Port St. Lucie is officially company headquarters.

Right now the company just wants its successful FLDDAP to continue.The company has not received money from the the National Institutes of Health, which cut back on its funding. The program has been funded for two years by the state Legislature only. Itnecessarily will come to a close this year if Torrey doesn't get the $3 million it needs from the 2015 Legislature. The St. Lucie County Legislative Delegation is working to help make it happen.

Amy Wright, research professor at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and Florida Atlantic University, admits she's a huge fan. "In just over a year the folks at Torrey Pines have developed outstanding collaborations with top researchers across Florida in many types of cancer, fungal infections ... tuberculosis, malaria, additional parasitic diseases ... cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases -- just to name a few. Extremely impressive!"

She wrote that in a testimonial letter, hoping the Legislature will pay attention. But she told Sunshine State News, "It really is amazing how much progress (Torrey Pines) made setting up these collaborations in a year," Wright said. "Their chemists are very talented."

(See some of the testimonial letters on Torrey Pines' behalf, meant for the Legislature to see, in an attachment below this story.)

Another Torrey Pines board member, Mark Robitaille, CEO of Martin Health Systems, said, "The life sciences industry is here to stay. It's raised the level and the reputation of Florida and helped the state university system beyond belief, including saving them an untold amount of money. Torrey Pines, with this drug program, is one of the best in that regard."

Robitaille said the decrease in NIH funding this year has made it difficult to get research grants. "We're looking at a major problem all over the country," he said. "It's a matter of the state and universities just getting through this period.

Finally, he said, biotech is still hot in the Sunshine State. He said science is close to finding cures to many major diseases, and it's people like the 20 to 30 at Torrey Pines, and no doubt others in the industry and at teaching hospitals around the state, who are putting Florida at the center of the breakthroughs.

What we Know About Biotech and the Life Sciences Industry in Florida

While the U.S. biotech sector grew by 5 percent over the five years ending in 2012, the Florida "industry has grown by 42 percent, with nearly 200 biotechnology companies," according to a University of Florida report, "Floridas BioPulse: A Snapshot of the Bioscience Industry."

Floridas life science industry is in the southeast in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton and Port St. Lucie; the southwest in the Tampa area; in the north central region in Gainesville and Alachua; and the east central region in the Orlando area.

The report says more than 10 percent of the nations biotech companies are now in Florida, and "those institutes located in Miami, Jupiter, Port St. Lucie, Orlando, Tampa and St. Petersburg have added to the existing research infrastructure to create the momentum seen today."

Florida also did better than the nation in job growth in the industry between 2001 and 2010, with employment increasing 19 percent compared to 6.3 percent in the entire United States.

At least 61,000 people work in the biotech industry in Florida, according to states industry association, BioFlorida.

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-23423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

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