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Drug company opens Pinellas office

A New Jersey pharmaceutical development company has opened an office in Safety Harbor that designs and conducts trials of new drugs for diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

The office of Covance Inc., which opened in January, has about 12 workers and may grow to 50 during the next several years, said George Bobotas, who heads the office. Bobotas is a Tarpon Springs city commissioner.

He said Covance chose the site because of its proximity to medical schools at the University of South Florida and the University of Florida, good transportation, a pleasant lifestyle for employees and a large population of elderly residents and physicians who treat them.

The office will conduct research on drugs designed to help central nervous system disorders, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, dementia, stroke, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, mood disorders and psychiatric illnesses.

"Most central nervous system disorders tend to involve older people," Bobotas said.

The drug testing will be conducted nationwide, but some tests will be done in the area. Covance finds physicians who ask patients if they want to volunteer to test new drugs. In most cases, the patients are paid only if the testing causes them to incur expenses for such things as travel.

Having a large number of elderly patients nearby will be helpful because checking on the progress of the tests will be easier, Bobotas said.

Covance is a public company based in Princeton, N.J. It has about 6,000 employees in 17 countries. It had 1997 revenues of about $590-million.

Covance's new office in Safety Harbor "goes right along with our plans for economic development," Mayor Patrick Slevin said.

The company is leasing 4,400 square feet of space in an office building at the southeast corner of McMullen-Booth and Enterprise roads.

Bobotas, who has a doctorate in biochemistry, said he quit his job at a Tampa pharmaceutical company to start the Covance office.

Pharmaceutical companies that develop new drugs sometimes hire companies such as Covance, in a process known as "out sourcing," to go through the steps necessary to meet Food and Drug Administration approval before the drugs can be marketed to the public.

Bobotas declined to give examples of the types of companies Covance has as clients, saying that is proprietary information. He said it includes the largest drugmakers in the world.

He also declined to give a salary range for the new jobs that may be created in Safety Harbor, but said most would require at least four-year college degrees.

However, in talks with local and state officials about the possibility of tax refunds for the creation of new jobs, Covance officials said the average salaries would be in excess of $35,000 to $40,000 a year.

Bobotas said the work is driven by breakthroughs in science. In some cases, the drugs tested are only better versions of existing drugs. But sometimes they could be new treatments that would make a big difference for patients.

"To me, it doesn't seem like a job," Bobotas said. "At the end of the day, you know you're helping people."

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