Harvard partnership could lead to Kannapolis jobs

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 9, 2009

By Emily Ford
KANNAPOLIS ó A biomedical research company with an office at the N.C. Research Campus has started a collaboration with Harvard Medical School that could help win grants and create jobs in Kannapolis.
Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute works to prevent and cure diseases like asthma and cystic fibrosis. The nonprofit institute based in New Mexico has a center at the Research Campus run by a graduate of East Rowan High School, Dr. Chris Blanchette.
Lovelace partnered with Harvard two months ago to find new treatments for respiratory disease.
“The collaboration with Harvard is going to increase our capacity to bring in more funding,” Blanchette said. “The funding potential is substantial because of the expertise between us.”
Blanchette said he expects Lovelace to win grants in the $10 million to $20 million range, and most of the money would be used to hire personnel, some who would end up in Kannapolis.
“The impact on this economic environment could be substantial,” Blanchette said.
If Lovelace locates large clinical or community-based trials at the Research Campus, the Kannapolis office would need additional administrative and support staff, he said.
Blanchette has 55 employees in the clinical and outcomes research division, including six employees in Kannapolis.
Lovelace, along with Harvard and four other universities, will submit a grant proposal this month to the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality to build a research team to study chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
If they win the grant in March, about $6 million over three years would come through the Kannapolis center, Blanchette said.
That would more than double his $1.5 million annual budget.
This grant and others would come from federal stimulus dollars aimed at scientific research called comparative effectiveness.
Comparative effectiveness, or comparing two or more treatments or drugs to see which works best, isn’t new. But it’s become a buzzword for the Obama Administration and plays a key role in health care reform.
“That is what we do in this office,” Blanchette said.
His center in Kannapolis studies the outcome of disease treatments.
Lovelace is tailor-made to take advantage of the $1.1 billion in federal stimulus funds for comparative effectiveness research, Blanchette said.
“It’s very exciting,” he said.
Increasingly, lawmakers are viewing comparative effectiveness as a viable way to help drive down spiraling health care costs while continuing to provide quality care.
Roughly $700 billion each year goes to health-care spending that can’t be shown to lead to better health outcomes, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.
Lovelace’s collaboration with Harvard is expected to not only advance the understanding of how respiratory disease works, but also result in the development of new drugs.
About 100 Lovelace scientists have partnered with 100 Harvard physicians.
Blanchette is paired with Dr. Anne Fuhlbrigge in Boston. They have two studies under way to better understand asthma triggers and eventually help ward off asthma attacks.
Most of their collaboration will occur electronically, Blanchette said.
Lovelace recently brought another research scientist to Kannapolis, who also will be paired with a Harvard physician.
Dr. Denise Kruzikas will focus on vaccines and disparities in the health care system.
Her work will help inform policy-makers, Kruzikas said.
“I have a personal passion in health disparity and experience in vaccines,” she said.
Kruzikas, who moved to Charlotte from Philadelphia last week, will look at the effectiveness of vaccines and who gets them. Through her research, Kruzikas said she wants to ensure that vulnerable populations have access to the health care system.
She worked at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and was the director of vaccines health outcomes for GlaxoSmithKline.
In her new job, Kruzikas will study the expanding market for adult vaccinations, which she called “hugely underutilized.”
The N.C. Research Campus, a $1.5 billion life sciences complex in downtown Kannapolis, attracted her, she said.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Kruzikas said. “It’s new and unique, but there is still a fair amount of development that needs to happen.”
She praised the potential for collaboration between the private sector and the eight universities with a presence on the campus.
“It’s on the cusp of what’s about to happen,” she said.
By now, Lovelace had planned to partner with Pharmaceutical Product Development Inc. and Carolinas Medical Center in Kannapolis. Although PPD has pulled out of the campus and the hospital doesn’t have a presence there yet, Lovelace still plans to launch a study with the hospital, Blanchette said.
The campus hasn’t grown as fast as he thought it would, Blanchette said.
“We were hoping for more tenants,” he said. “But I am willing to stay here, and (Lovelace) is willing to invest in our group.”