M2Gen At Center Of Growing Research Corridor In North Tampa

There was a time, not so long ago, when the road to discovery along Malcolm McKinley Drive in north Tampa led to the latest death-defying roller coaster at Busch Gardens. But here in the shadow of SheiKra and Kumba and the Tanganyika Tidal Wave, defying death is taking on new meaning in the expanding footprint of an emerging leader in the realm of cancer research.

The seeds of innovation have taken root on 30 acres donated by Hillsborough County and the City of Tampa, just north of Bougainvillea Avenue, where M2Gen, a subsidiary of H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center, is working to connect patients to a cure.

Add to that the cluster of hospitals, institutes of higher learning and medical research facilities along Fowler and Fletcher Avenues and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, and it's not hard to give credence to the rising buzz that McKinley has the makings of a future high-tech research and development corridor like Chapel Hill's Triangle Park or Orlando's Lake Nona.

"You have this whole med/ed thing going on in that area," says Bob McDonaugh, Economic Opportunity Administrator for the City of Tampa. "They are targeted industries by the city, the county, EDC and Florida."

While the University of South Florida and a plethora of medical and research facilities, including Shriner's, Florida and James A. Haley Veterans' hospitals have been in the area for some time, M2Gen is a rising star that may help seal the region's fate.

Total Cancer Care

Affectionately known as Moffitt, the second generation -- M2Gen is the brainchild of Bill Dalton, an oncologist and CEO who led Moffitt for a decade, and steered it to national recognition as the third largest cancer center in America. During his tenure, Moffitt went from 1,100 to 4,000 employees and, in 2006 established M2Gen.

In practical terms, says Dalton, M2Gen was created to monetize discovery, the critical path that brings scientific breakthroughs to the people who can benefit from them.

"The discoveries take place in institutions," he says, "but the transfer of that discovery to society is sometimes called the Valley of Death. How do you monetize it?"

For M2Gen, that meant implementing a total cancer care approach -- entering into a partnership with patients, asking to follow them throughout their lifetimes to figure out how to develop biomarkers for certain cancers, to predict which therapies will be the most effective and to identify psycho-social needs.

"The more you understand a patient's biology, the more you can provide a patient with the best chance of survival. That's why M2gen was created," says Dalton.

Because cancer is not just one disease, but many -- even breast cancers have multiple variations -- total cancer care is a journey that requires hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of patients to be followed.

Moffitt initiated the process in 2003, then formalized it three years later with M2Gen, allowing Moffitt to interface with different industries, like the five-year partnership with Merck Laboratories that helped underwrite the $150 million cost of building the M2Gen infrastructure that exists today.

In exchange, Merck received a brief, exclusive period during which the pharmaceutical company's researchers could mine the M2Gen database to help identify which patients best would respond to particular therapies.

"It was a huge undertaking," Dalton says. "It's been used by Moffitt and other universities as a model," Dalton says.

The Merck partnership ended last year and now M2Gen has numerous clients asking the company to help design new bio-markers.

"We can predict the patient populations most probably who can benefit from new therapies."

That ability to predict response, made possible through partnering with patients and learning from them, was "a huge step" in cancer treatment and Moffitt was recognized in 2010 as the national leader in personalized medicine.

"This has been a journey. Once it was started, a lot of very bright people made huge contributions," he says.

The Journey Begins

Personalized medicine is something Dalton has been dreaming about in some form or fashion for 20 years. The genesis of what would become M2Gen emerged from his early work as a clinician. He served for a time as director of oncology at Moffitt.

"When you see so many patients with so many different kinds of cancer -- I knew there was a genetic basis," Dalton says. "We needed to understand why some respond to a particular treatment and some don't."

Dalton's career has taken him back and forth from his Southwestern roots as an undergraduate student in New Mexico. After his first stint at Moffitt, he left to become the dean of the college of medicine at the University of Arizona. He returned in 2002 to take the reins at the growing cancer center in Tampa, and to build on his idea of personalized medicine.

"The Moffitt environment is so positive, it creates a very entrepreneurial environment," he says. "I thought if there was any place that could pull this off, it was Moffitt -- and I wasn't mistaken."

Last summer, Dalton left his leadership position at Moffitt to dedicate 100 percent of his time to total care and the evolution and growth of M2Gen.

Bigger Than the Big "C"

Part of that expansion transcends cancer. The idea of following patients throughout their lifetime can be implemented with any disease and M2Gen is in discussions with other potential clients about how to apply the patented protocols developed for cancer to Alzheimer's, diabetes and other conditions.

Moffitt, which owns the intellectual properties generated by M2Gen, was issued five patents last year that apply to all diseases. These protocols born in Tampa -- computer network systems for data mining -- are now being exported nationally to other communities.

Meanwhile, tumor samples donated by patients enrolled in total care are finding their way to M2Gen's bio repository -- one of the largest in the world -- at its headquarters on McKinley Drive.

Another patent that is pending is a patient portal where much of the preliminary M2Gen data is gathered.

Developed for patients who opted to become partners in M2Gen's total cancer care, the portal is now available to all Moffitt patients, who can register before their first appointment.

Patients can open their portal and fill out a 350-part questionnaire so that doctors can be informed about family medical history and other valuable information they can discuss on their first visit. Patients can see the results of their tests and labs within three days and the protected medical records -- secured with a pin number -- can follow patients wherever they go.

"It's the most popular thing we've ever done," says Dalton. "One hundred percent of new patients at Moffitt in January opened their portal before they were ever seen. That was a record, a day we'll remember."

About 100,000 patients now participate in the total care partnership with M2Gen, and now the challenge is growing the database, which will benefit both patients and the pharmaceutical companies that are developing drugs to cure or treat them.

Pfizer came out with a new drug for lung cancer that targets a specific protein and gene, says Dalton.

"We can tell them ahead of time what percentage of patients will have that marker. If patients have not responded, we can find them and match them to the best trial."

No one had ever done anything like this before, Dalton says. "We knew we wanted to match patients to the best clinical trial, from day one. We know the demand is there."

For now, most of the company's 40 employees are engaged in collecting, analyzing and managing data. Others need to know how to handle the tumor specimens that are donated to the repository.

The number of employees and skill sets needed as M2Gen grows will depend upon the needs of new clients and partnerships forged, he says. Whatever the need, it won't be hard to entice them to Tampa, he says.

"It's easy to recruit from Michigan in February. It's all in the timing."

Medical Tourism: The New Frontier

The 30 acres that now house the M2Gen headquarters, its tumor tissue repository and Moffitt's new outpatient satellite clinic that broke ground in February, will not accommodate the anticipated growth.

Lake Nona and Triangle Park encompass hundreds of acres of land and all agree it will take strategic planning on the part of the Hillsborough County and the City of Tampa to keep that growth concentrated in the USF med/ed corridor.

Certainly government leaders are on board with the idea. The county planning commission is in the midst of an economic study of developable land that includes that area, says McDonaugh. And USF is exploring various partnerships.

"There's a synergy between all of those people in that area."

Attracting Medical Tourism

The tourism and entertainment industries the Tampa Bay region have always embraced will continue to play a significant role in the local economy, but city and county officials are banking on research and technology to drive investment in an area where medicine and education intersect.

Still, even Busch Gardens, one of the major stakeholders in the area with control of most of the remaining vacant land, has a significant role to play, he says.

"They are looking at adding a hospitality component. The more patients you attract, the more hotel rooms you need," he says. "There is medical tourism, where people come for special treatments, and Busch also brings a lot of people from out of the country, who might find Moffitt attractive and vice versa."

Meanwhile, Tampa's mayor, Bob Buckhorn, calls M2Gen "exactly the type of spinoff that we would hope for: Take that research out of the petri dish and move it into the marketplace."

The company's projected expansion, and its contribution to solidifying a high-tech research center in the area, is also an opportunity to grow Tampa's brain trust, he says.

"It's a way to keep our best and brightest kids here."

Jan Hollingsworth has been telling the Tampa Bay's growth story since the 1970s. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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