Utah’s life sciences industry, one of the strongest sectors in the state’s economy, flourished throughout the recession, undaunted by the hard times that plagued almost every other industry.
The life sciences industry has two important areas of emphasis: medical devices and genetics. With companies like Merit Medical and Edwards Lifesciences, “Utah is the Silicon Valley of medical devices,” says Michael Paul, CEO of LineaGen, a company that provides a genetic test to help pediatricians diagnose autism.
The wealth of genetic-focused innovation in Utah is equally impressive. The genetics sector is fueled by a set of elements unique to the Beehive State.
In the 1980s, a group of scientists convened at Alta Ski Resort for a symposium on genetic mutations and nuclear fallout. The initial idea for the Human Genome Project was born at that symposium, says Paul, and the scientists could not have found themselves in a better spot.
As Paul explains, the project needed a control group of families without a history of genetic diseases. The researchers recruited 47 families in Utah that each had four living grandparents, two parents and eight children. Where else could you find so many large families, says Paul. “Either you’re going to go to Bangladesh, India, or come to Salt Lake City, Utah.”
Those 47 families contributed their DNA to form the control basis of the Human Genome Project. “Not only is that a huge scientific contribution, it is a huge communitarian contribution,” he says. “Utah may have one of the most cooperative clinical and genetic research populaces.”
According to Paul, 80 percent of Utahns contacted for a clinical or genetic research study agree to participate, which is much higher than the national average. “More genes that cause disease have been found in Utah than in any single place worldwide,” he says.
Utah’s unusually large families also tend to have unusually detailed family histories. From these records, the state began developing the Utah Population Database in 1980. Teams from the University of Utah went to the Family History Library and hand entered records from individuals who could trace their family genealogy back to the pioneer trail—essentially the founders of the state’s current population.
“At the time, that could have been the largest database ever created—it was about 180,000 families, about 1 million records,” says Paul. The state contributed demographic records such as driver’s licenses, birth certificates and cancer records.
“You could identify large families—sometimes 5 – 10,000 people within a large extended family using the genealogy—identify living individuals using the birth certificates and driver’s licenses, and then identify which in that family might be affected by [cancer]. That is exactly the resource that enabled the University of Utah and Myriad Genetics in partnership to identify the BRAC1 and BRAC2 genes that increase a person’s susceptibility to breast and ovarian cancer,” says Paul.
The convergence of a cooperative population with large families and the database that can link up to 18 generations of people in the same family has turned Utah into a gold mine for genetic researchers. In addition to Myriad Genetics are companies like Axial Biotech, which is researching scoliosis, and LineaGen, which is focused on autism.
Utah’s research institutions have, in the past decade or so, stepped up their efforts to commercialize research. The effort has created synergy between academics, entrepreneurs and investors. LineaGen, for example, funds research projects that use the population database to identify the genetic variations that contribute to autism.
LineaGen solicited funding through venture capital firms to sponsor the research, “which we have done to the tune of over $3 million now,” says Paul. “I think we are one of the largest small-company funders of research at the University of Utah over the last couple of years.”
LineaGen was actually spun out of a nonprofit group call GenData that was created by the state of Utah, the U and the Huntsman Cancer Foundation to increase the research utility of the Utah Population Database by increasing its medical records to include more than just cancer records.
Governors Leavitt, Huntsman and Herbert “all view human genetic research as a core enabler of economic development,” says Paul. And life science is one of the clusters that the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) is focused on strengthening.
“The conversations we have with life science companies is ‘we need talent and we need funding,’” says Tami Goetz, state science advisor. Building a pipeline of talent is “something that we can do something about.” Hands-on science programs in elementary school get students excited about science, and a biotechnology program implemented in 21 high schools statewide keeps them excited.
“We’re working hard to make sure students get as much hands-on, real-world science experience as possible,” says Goetz.
At the universities, the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative (USTAR) is helping commercialize research. Additionally, “USTAR has played a big role in bringing talent in from across the country—some fantastic talent,” says Goetz.
But there is still a lot of work to be done. Personalized healthcare is part of the USTAR initiative, and Paul believes fully developing that initiative will attract top-notch researchers and business talent, as well as the latest technology.
“We should be the Mecca for human genetic research and for personalized health care, because genetics plays a key role in personalized healthcare,” he says. “Nobody has the resources and the assets that Utah has.”