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Durham: The City of Innovation

Author's note: This post is adapted from a "Med Talk" I gave today at the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau's Annual Tribute Luncheon. 

At the Biotech Center, our vision is for North Carolina to continue to be a global leader in life science.

To realize that vision, we work across the state to grow companies and technologies that will help to heal, fuel and feed the world. As you can imagine, we hear a lot of great stories while doing this work.

And nowhere are there more stories than right here in Durham.

For example, patients in pain, perhaps post-surgery, can relax and heal with medication produced by Purdue Pharma Manufacturing in a facility right here in Durham.

Or, did anyone here have chicken pox as a kid? I did. Does anyone remember all of the itching? And the oatmeal baths?

Today, we can get a vaccine to prevent the virus and all that itching. But also we can keep children who have weakened immune systems, like those with leukemia, from contracting a life-threatening virus. That’s thanks to Merck, which makes the chicken pox vaccine right here in Durham.

Those are medicines already on the market. Today I want to tell you about the new innovations coming down the pike - things that will change our lives tomorrow.

Tobacco to Vaccines

Medicago came to Durham in 2010 to build a unique vaccine facility. They have a greenhouse, where they grow tobacco plants.

These plants produce protein. When the protein is ready, Medicago extracts the protein from the tobacco leaves and purifies it. The end result is a vaccine.

This process takes weeks instead of months, like the traditional egg incubation method, or even the newer cell culture method.

This work is heavily funded by the Department of Defense, because a faster vaccine gives us a rapid response to new or unexpected strains of flu, such as the H1N1 outbreak a few years ago.

Pathway to better health

As I said Medicago came here in 2010, and it will still be a few years before they have all of their federal approvals.

So I also want to share the story of a company with a product that doesn’t take so long. bioMASON. bioMASON takes sand, adds bacteria, feeds it, and viola – they make concrete.

If they use brick-shaped molds, they make bricks.

Now, this is absolutely not medicine!

But imagine a remote part of the world. Where there isn’t a kiln, or energy, to bake bricks. Just take this specialized mix and add water.

And families can build a home that is more protected from the elements. Or a field medical center can operate in a cleaner environment, providing better healthcare to the nearby population. Or the carbon footprint of making bricks is reduced, 800 million tons of carbon dioxide each year, and all of us can breathe more easily.

Ultimately the impact is a better quality of life. And that’s why we’re excited about bioMASON. And its production facility in Durham.

Broad approach to job creation

This story also illustrates the broad approach the Biotech Center takes when developing the life sciences here. Global leadership isn't something you keep by standing still. So we're always on the lookout for the next great idea, or emerging sector that puts life science to work to solve problems.

I have a few examples of those early-stage companies, which have some promising early results. Just remember not to ask your doctor for these treatments anytime soon.

  • Novan Therapeutics is testing a treatment for acne and other skin ailments, where the treatment is targeted to the area of skin that needs it.
  • Innocrin is looking at a new therapy for certain prostate and breast cancers. This therapy interrupts the process that these specific cancer cells use to replicate themselves.
  • Baebies, which is a spinout from Duke, is developing a test for newborns. Right now you have to draw a large volume of blood to do these important tests. Baebies is developing a test that uses a much smaller amount. This gives us a faster result.  

I could go on – there are about 200 life science companies right here in Durham. These companies need specific space, talent, equipment, and support services in order to grow. The Biotech Center works with the community – all of you here in Durham – to put these specialized pieces together. So that these companies grow, right here in Durham. And North Carolina continues to lead the challenge to heal and fuel and feed the world. 

With innovation that starts right here in Durham.

For a wonderful overview, check this video that was shown at the luncheon -- and enjoy this slideshow of the event.


Well done, Robin! Thanks so much for doing this. You were awesome!

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