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Robert Trigaux

Tampa's M2Gen HQ, cancer brand on the rise



Rickgarrison_2 Don't look now but M2Gen, the Merck-Moffitt joint venture, is moving into the fast lane with some amazing plans. I caught up with the next wave in cancer drug research a few days ago while sitting in the temporary Tampa office of M2Gen listening to chief operating officer Rick Garrison outline a business and technology future of giant genetic databases and huge frozen tissue banks. Here's the  full-blown column I wrote about it in Sunday's St. Petersburg Times. (Photo: Kainaz Amaria of the Times.)

Welcome to the emerging prototype for creating businesses spun off high-tech science. It's a model cropping up across the country and in some other nations. And Tampa Bay — with such similar, recently arrived ventures as SRI (check out the Oct. 30 groundbreaking in St. Petersburg) and Draper Laboratory — wants to be right in the game.

M2Gen is a joint venture of Tampa's H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute and Merck & Co. The New Jersey drug giant boasts $60-billion in market clout, 60,000 employees and a voracious appetite to find more efficient and more profitable ways to bring blockbuster drugs to market.

M2Gen promises both high-wage jobs and more high-tech/high-med spinoffs. It is backed by public funding and incentives from the state, Hillsborough County and even the city of Tampa. That's why M2Gen's four-story, 100,000-square-foot building (shown above, behind Garrison) on N Malcolm McKinley Drive -- north of Busch Gardens and south of USF Tampa -- on Moffitt-owned land is going up rapidly and should be ready by the spring.

"M2Gen is one of hopefully many commercializations of this work," says Garrison, 52. Yes, some distant competitors are out there, he admits. "But not on this scale."

Here is what Garrison expects within five years. More than 30,000 samples of tumors from six specific kinds of cancer — lung, brain, breast, prostate, colo-rectal and pancreas — should be frozen and on file. And M2Gen should have the consent of 100,000 patients to capture their individual genetic data.

Moffitt created the name M2Gen to refer to the "next generation" in medicine, Garrison says. "This should be one of the largest cancer-centric databases in the world."

And how will it work as a business? M2Gen aims to create the go-to database for drug companies seeking specific candidates for clinical drug trials. The goal: to shorten the drug development process by reducing the randomness of clinical trials assembled via mass marketing. Drug companies will pay for this service, known as "gene-based clinical trial matching."

"Fifty to 60 percent of drug trials fail," says Garrison. "Our intention is to find out earlier in the process." The process also should help consenting cancer patients connect more quickly to any drug trial focused on their conditions. M2Gen may also profit by using its database as a diagnostic tool for cancer treatment. And it sees commercial possibilities of selling its cancer data to health care businesses.

The flip side of "M2Gen the business" is "M2Gen the marketer of cancer solutions" to the public. The company already has created a brand: "Total Cancer Care: The future of personalized medicine." That's the message it is pushing out to more than a dozen hospitals participating in a consortium. Among area hospitals pushing the Total Cancer Care brand are Tampa's St. Joseph's and Clearwater's Morton Plant.

At first, M2Gen will seek patients and, through their doctors, ask for a tissue sample from their cancer biopsy, plus personal demographic and genetic information. The tissues would be frozen and stored in a giant repository now being built — with backup generators and protections from storms — in M2Gen's building now under construction in Tampa.

All this information goes into M2Gen's database to be analyzed for both scientific and commercial purposes.

What's in it for consenting patients? "Potentially hope in their lifetime, if we come across any benefits during drug trials, to be part of a unique clinical trial that would not be available to the public," Garrison explains.

At the least, participation may help others down the road.

-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist

[Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 11:23am]


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