Professor innovates gene therapy

Professor innovates gene therapy

TGRx provides jobs, brings revenue

J.J. Alcantara

Issue date: 3/25/08 Section: News
Richard Cooper, veterinary science professor, is leading students and professionals to research and develop treatments for certain genetic diseases.

Cooper, TransGenRx executive vice president of research and development, expands and enhances the way gene therapy works.

Gene therapy is used to treat individuals with single-disorder genes such as cystic fibrosis, sickle-cell anemia and certain types of diabetes.

Cooper said his technology has made gene therapy more efficient than previous methods.

“Every gene therapy trial that’s been started has been shut down because people are dying because they use viruses to transfer the genes,” said Bill Fioretti, co-founder and president of TGRx. “Those viruses have a habit of integrating to cancer-causing genes, if they integrate at all.”

Fioretti said TGRx’s gene therapy is different because Cooper’s technology has the ability to know which specific genes to change and will not cause cancer if it fails.

“[It does] it at a rate … of 100 more times efficient than traditional gene transfer technologies,” Fioretti said. “You know where it’s going to integrate and it does not cause cancer.”

Fioretti said the TGRx is the only company using this form of gene therapy because the technology is patented.

Fioretti co-founded TGRx in 2002 to license Cooper’s technology but the University also benefits.

Cooper said the University owns shares of the company and has a royalty agreement with TGRx.

“Both the AgCenter and the main campus are in the top-tier of royalty-producing income,” Fioretti said.

He said TGRx’s technology helps increase the University’s revenue because they own part of the license.

TGRx also produces protein drugs such as insulin and growth hormones for 10-20 times cheaper than the current costs using Cooper’s technology.

Cooper said TGRx uses chickens and chicken eggs to develop the protein.

He said TGRx engineers chickens to produce human proteins in their eggs.

Fioretti said TGRx’s first commercial product is a derivative of a human growth hormone.

“We will be making intermediate pharmaceutical ingredients,” Fioretti said. “We will sell that to someone who further processes it and sells it.”

TGRx partnered with the University and the AgCenter to develop this technology.

Fioretti said this partnership allows the company and the University to benefit.

He said TGRx first looks to the University before they advertise elsewhere to find graduates to work for the company.

Today, Fioretti said TGRx employs about 10 scientists who graduated from the University and about 12 student workers.

“Most [graduates] come out of biological sciences,” Cooper said. “But we’ve had a few come out animal sciences with an emphasis in poultry.”

Fioretti said as the company continues to expand, he will broaden his search for business, accounting and management graduates.

“We want to give graduates that are getting degrees in areas like molecular biology and biochemistry a place to work when they stay here,” Cooper said.

Fioretti said his long-term goal is to establish TGRx as an anchor for a viable biotech industry in Louisiana – specifically around Baton Rouge.

He said TGRx will attract support services and businesses like companies that raise poultry and purify and finish protein drugs.

“As we grow, there’ll be not just the jobs that we can provide,” Fioretti said. “Other companies that move in to provide services for us will be hiring people as we go.”

Fioretti said another goal of TGRx is to be a large-scale contract manufacturer.

“The companies that we partner with would have an interest to putting small- to medium-sized operations down here,” Fioretti said. “The whole thing goes toward not just attracting or keeping students and graduates in the state but bringing companies that will bring their workforce with them as well.”

Fioretti said this goal will help the biotech industry grow faster in Louisiana.

TGRx is currently located at the Wilson Laboratories but will soon move to the Louisiana Emerging Technology Center.

Fioretti said once the move to LETC is complete, TGRx will be able to increase their workforce.

“It’s really good for our company to have that kind of opportunity to expand in size and bring everybody together,” Fioretti said. “There’s something to be said about working in contact with all your peers and exchang[ing] ideas.”

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Contact J.J. Alcantara at jalcantara@lsureveille.com

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