Biomedical Breakthroughs Take Root in Maine
Laboratories and life sciences firms across Maine are advancing biomedical breakthroughs of the future.
From optical imaging technologies for surgical robots to next-generation tests for swine flu to new therapies for treating everything from chronic pain to Alzheimer’s disease, laboratories across Maine are discovering and developing pharmaceutical products, diagnostic tools and surgical devices that are advancing medical science and raising the standard of health care around the world. At Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, scientists research cures for cancer as well as groundbreaking treatments for vascular and autoimmune diseases, diabetes, glaucoma, and neurodegenerative conditions such as ALS, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s. Established in 1929 by a Harvard-educated scientist, the laboratory is one of 27 research centers certified by the National Cancer Institute and a national leader in genetic and genomic research. Along with conducting its own experiments, it provides research resources to labs worldwide and education and training for specialists in the field. “It doesn’t matter who you talk to here or what they are doing, everyone feels like part of the mission and takes pride in its purpose,” says LuAnn Ballesteros, director of the office of government relations for Jackson Laboratories. “We are leading the search for tomorrow’s cures, and everyone is excited about their part in that search.” Along with Jackson Laboratory, the state boasts other institutions with global reputations for biomedical and marine science research, including Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, Bigelow Laboratory and the Maine Medical Center Research Institute. It is also home to more than 220 biotech and medical device firms driving research in the industry and employing some 6,200 workers in the state. Fast Growing Firms Among the fastest growing is IDEXX Laboratories, a publicly traded company based in Westbrook, where researchers develop diagnostics tests and information technology used by veterinarians worldwide to treat pets. “Our core business is helping pets live long, healthy lives and helping pet owners care for their pets – and we do that by providing veterinarians with the best technology through blood work and other diagnostics,” says CEO Jon Ayers. The firm also makes diagnostic tests to help livestock and poultry producers keep herds and flocks disease-free, and tests for water and milk quality and safety. IDEXX has “grown up through innovation,” Ayers says, leading the pet diagnostics market in $1 billion in research and development over the past decade and doubling its employment base in Maine to 2,100. “We are growing at 9 to 10 percent a year,” Ayers says. The company completed a $35 million expansion in 2014 to support 300 additional jobs and create a state-of-the-art environment for idea sharing. Maine's healthy quality of life and collaborative partnerships make it a good place to grow, Ayers says. “It's easy to attract talent here,” he says. Lohmann Animal Health, a global producer of poultry vaccines and feed additives, operates a plant in Winslow. In 2014, Eli Lilly and Co.’s animal health division, Elanco, acquired the company with plans to expand its reach. The rising demand for minimally invasive surgery capabilities in hospitals is fueling growth for Lighthouse Imaging, an optical imaging design firm that makes equipment to test the imaging quality of endoscopes and other robotic medical devices. In 2014, the company moved into a larger facility in Windham to accommodate growth in the manufacturing side of its business. Seed grants from the Maine Technology Institute provided funding to help the company expand its product portfolio, and local universities have helped supply talent as production has ramped up, says CEO Robert Austring. Jackson Laboratory is collaborating with the Maine Medical Center and Eastern Maine Medical Center to study triple-negative breast cancer. Funded primarily by the Maine Cancer Foundation, the project uses genetically modified mice as avatars for clinical trials, implanting them with tumors removed from patients and testing their response to different drugs. Making the project even more meaningful is how closely it hits home. “Anytime you can incorporate key institutions in a single state for the benefit of patients in that state, that's an exciting opportunity,” Ballesteros says. Learn more about biotech and life science in Maine.