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M2Gen: The future cancer fight starts here

Forgive the cliche, but I am sitting in the temporary and obscure 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, and all I can think of is Jurassic Park.

If you recall the movie, one scene shows a kind of indoor theme park ride showcasing science labs where gene-manipulated, frozen-embryo dinosaurs are raised to populate what's supposed to be a dino park zoo. How fitting M2Gen will reside so near Busch Gardens.

This pop comparison should not suggest M2Gen's fate will be the same as a fictitious and ill-fated T-Rex zoo. The reference is really another way to marvel at the idea of storing cancer tissues and genetic detail on a massive scale, and then mining the resulting super-database. That's how M2Gen hopes to find advances against cancer, and opportunities for profit.

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 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 on N Malcolm McKinley Drive 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. Yes, some distant competitors are out there, he admits. "But not on this scale."

At 52 years old, Garrison is a seasoned health care executive and business startup pro. He arrived in Tampa to run M2Gen in March of 2007. His boss is Dr. Timothy Yeatman, who is also Moffitt's chief scientific officer, M2Gen's president and, says Garrison, the guy who sold him on the M2Gen vision.

An affable Philadelphia native, who did not rub my nose in the World Series outcome, Garrison has hired 87 employees (50 work for M2Gen, and the remainder work for hospitals — but are funded by M2Gen — participating in M2Gen's consortium). He expects to have 100, ranging from pathologists and tech experts to folks who work with cancer patients to get their consent to be in the M2Gen database, on the payroll by the end of this year. Job pay will average about $80,000.

Being the COO of a joint venture, Garrison spends plenty of time keeping others informed. He regularly briefs Dr. William Dalton, Moffitt's CEO, because M2Gen is technically a subsidiary of the Tampa organization. And Garrison meets monthly with a Merck team, and quarterly with Merck executives. Merck is chipping in more than $90-million in exchange for access to M2Gen's product in the coming years, but also helps M2Gen process the tissue samples it collects.

Cancer patients tend to identify with others having the same cancer — be it breast or prostate — but the diseases can be dramatically different. A patient's genetic makeup also influences the success of any standard treatment. Hence the potential beauty of M2Gen's focus on "personalized" medicine.

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, he says.

"This should be one of the largest cancer-centric databases in the world," Garrison says.

When the M2Gen deal was first announced in 2006, Hills­borough and Pasco counties were "neck in neck" in competing for the project. Hillsborough won out with an offer of $20-million in cash and land for the site. It was the most lucrative offer that Hillsborough County had ever pitched to attract a new business.

Was it worth it? M2Gen's start is truly promising. And the company bears a grave responsibility to manage the privacy of so many people's genetic details.

Garrison acknowledges that, and adds: "We are a couple years ahead in personalized medicine."

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727)893-8405.

M2Gen: How the business will work

M2Gen, an affiliate of Tampa's Moffitt Cancer Center and a joint venture with the Merck drug company, aims to become a commercial business.

How? By building a giant frozen repository of many thousands of cancer tissues and individual genetic information, the company 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 M2Gen executive Rick 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.

"Total Cancer Care": Creating the brand

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.

M2Gen: The future cancer fight starts here 11/15/08 [Last modified: Saturday, November 15, 2008 3:51pm]
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