A breath of fresh air – the Colorado Pulmonary System

A breath of fresh air – the Colorado Pulmonary System

CHICAGO – In the world of biotech, the assumption is that the two poles of greatest and best activity center around San Francisco on the West Coast and Boston on the East Coast. This assumption is based on the historic role each city has played over the last 30+ years and the wealth of intellectual capital in the key research-based universities such as University of California – San Francisco and Stanford University in San Francisco and MIT and Harvard in Boston (just to name a few). It doesn’t hurt that a large concentration of venture capital is located in each city/region.
True, a lot of good new medicines are coming out of each of the above regions, but good medicine, diagnostics and medical devices is not the purview of these regions only. Last week, while visiting Denver I participated in two different meetings which showed me that biotech is alive, abundant and well in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain region.
The first meeting I attended (disclosure: Forest City, the company I work for was a host organization for this first meeting and a sponsor for the second meeting, and your author had organizational involvement in both meetings), was the first Colorado Biosymposium on Pulmonary Disease (www.fitzscience.com/Pulmonary_BioSymposium.aspx).
The pulmonary/respiratory system of the body covers a broad spectrum of diseases around the world including but not limited to asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD of which just one disease in this family is emphysema), cystic fibrosis, respiratory infections (bronchitis, sinusitis, respiratory synctial virus, otitis media, lung cancer and some types of head & neck cancer, pulmonary hypertension, and others.
Lung disease is no laughing matter: more than 35 million people in the U.S. live with chronic lung disease of one type or another such as asthma or COPD. According to the American Lung Association (www.lungusa.org) the impact of this broad range of diseases is astounding:

  • Lung disease costs the U.S. economy about $95 billion annually in direct healthcare expenditures and an additional $59 for indirect costs for a total cost of about $154 billion to U.S. society.
  • Lung disease is the number three killer (behind heart disease and cancer) in the U.S., responsible for one in 6 deaths in the U.S.
  • An estimated 438,000 Americans die each year from diseases related to cigarette smoking (including heart and lung diseases)
  • The lung disease death rate has been continuously increasing while death rates due to other leading causes of death (heart disease, cancer, and stroke) have been decreasing
  • Various forms of lung disease and breathing problems is one of the leading causes of death in babies under the age of one year
  • Lung cancer is the second largest type of cancer in the U.S. and 219,440 people will be diagnosed in 2009 with an expected 159,390 deaths according to the National Cancer Institute

So why Denver for a conference on this disease area? Well, historically, Colorado was known back in the 1800’s as the main treatment area for tuberculosis. Tuberculosis (TB), a major infection around the world, is today not a problem in the U.S. although some 13,000 Americans are infected annually with this disease and there has been resurgence due to increasing drug resistance.
TB is a respiratory disease caused by bacteria, and impacts a significant population around the world – it is estimated one third of the world’s population is infected by TB according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) (www.cdc.gov). Some 9 million people around the world will get sick due to TB with 2 million deaths annually due to this disease. It is also the leading killer of patients infected with HIV/AID’s.
The leading respiratory hospital and research center in the U.S., according to U.S. News & World Report, is National Jewish Health (www.national jewish.org) located in Denver. This institution dates back to 1899, although its first hospital building was built in 1893. This institution focused principally on the treatment of tuberculosis as Denver’s climate was thought to propitious for these patients. Today, the center is a leading respiratory disease center for many other types of lung disease.
Nearby, the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine (www.uchsc.edu) in Aurora, which collaborates heavily with National Jewish (many faculty have joint appointments) is, itself one of the leading respiratory disease centers in the U.S., and together with its comprehensive cancer center and Children’s Hospital (also one of the top in the U.S.), provide even a fuller spectrum of approaches to the diagnosis and treatment of respiratory disorders in children and adults.
So it is logical that this critical mass of pulmonary disease medical and research talent would gather together to review the status of new approaches to diagnosis and treatment of a number of pulmonary diseases. The Colorado BioSymposium disease conference brought together leading experts from all 3 of the above institutions plus representatives from organizations such as the American Lung Association (Colorado chapter), The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the Big Pharma company GlaxoSmithKline, and venture capital. Lung diseases reviewed were: Asthma, COPD, Viral infections, Pulmonary Fibrosis, Lung Cancer, Pulmonary Hypertension, Stem cells in Lung Vascular Diseases, and the role of Micro RNA in Lung and cardiovascular diseases. A final panel session was dedicated to the development and commercialization of lung disease products and companies.
Listening to this conference brought back a lot of memories of my first days in the pharmaceutical world when as a pharma sales rep for Pfizer many years ago, I visited physicians with products for asthma, bronchial infections (antibiotics), and cough-cold medicines. The treatment of some of these diseases has changed radically since then with new approaches such as stem cells and specific products for pulmonary hypertension – back then this disease was not well understood and no products existed. On the other hand, the widespread use of steroids and bronchodilators, the main stay of treatment for asthma, has not changed much over the last 40 years.
Perhaps the area of greatest change has been in the diagnosis and treatment of lung cancer, the incidence of which has increased over the last 40 years due to the increase in cigarette smoking during this period. There were not many new therapies for this deadly disease 30-40 years ago, but a number of new biotech drugs have emerged recently and a new wave of diagnostic products are under development, particularly in Colorado by some very exciting companies.
The next day featured a different type of conference in Denver, the first Rocky Mountain Life Science Investor Conference (www.rmlic.com). Participants from some 20 biotech companies hailing from Montana, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico in addition to Colorado were present. In addition to presentations from the president of Johnson & Johnson’s new VC group Redscript, Governor Ritter of Colorado spoke, as did Nobel Prize laureate Tom Cech, who previously had been president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and who has returned to Boulder to run the new Colorado Initiative for Molecular. VC’s from the region and the West Coast were in abundance.
Colorado, with over 400 biotech companies (a good portion of which are medical device and diagnostic companies), is an active biotech state with large presence of companies like Novartis, Amgen, Roche, Medtronic. Gilead has historically made a number of acquisitions in Colorado including Nexstar and more recently Myogen for $2.5 billion, but has folded these back into California. Nevertheless, Colorado has been a good hunting ground for companies and technologies and there has been a fair amount of M&A:

  • Ventana Medical Systems, acquired by Roche for $3.4 billion
  • Pharmion acquired by Celgene for $2.9 billion
  • Myogen
  • Sirna acquired by Merck for $1.1 billion

The importance of all of the above is that there are great things happening in medicine and scientific research, and the development of new biotech companies outside of the traditional biotech hotspots of the 2 coasts. Venture capitalists on both coasts would be well-served to take a look at what is happening in non-traditional biotech corridors as there are good values abounding at much cheaper rates than what they are investing in on the coasts. As the venture capital model for investing has changed, VC’s will find their funds stretching dollars by investing in places like the Rocky Mountain States or the Midwest.
See you soon!
Recent columns by Michael Rosen

Michael S. Rosen is Senior Vice President, New Business Development for the Science + Technology Group at Forest City Enterprises, a NYSE-traded real estate development company which develops and builds bioscience parks across the U.S. Rosen is also a founder and board member of the Illinois Biotechnology Industry Organization. He can be reached at rosenmichaels@aol.com.
This article previously appeared in MidwestBusiness.com, and was reprinted with its permission. The article is not meant to be a stock recommendation.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.