Southern Research has 400 full-time employees, generates $80 million in revenue, and has an annual economic impact of $150 million.
Written by: Matt Windsor
Media contact: Alicia Rohan
Before coronavirus vaccines and treatments proved their worth in clinics around the world, they had to prove themselves in Birmingham’s Southside. Southern Research scientists, working under contracts with major pharmaceutical companies and federal agencies, received nearly $40 million in COVID-related testing and other research contracts after the pandemic began.
In their Biosafety Level 3, or BSL-3, laboratory where highly pathogenic viruses such as those that cause COVID-19, tuberculosis and yellow fever can be safely studied, Southern Research scientists continue to study the effects of treatments against variants of COVID-19. The robotic arms at the high-throughput testing center have sifted through tens of thousands of Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs and helped identify dozens that may slow SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the coronavirus. A COVID-19 vaccine co-developed by Southern Research and Tonix Pharmaceuticals is currently undergoing human clinical trials. Southern Research researchers are also collaborating with Tonix on a treatment that was found to be 65 times more potent in early testing than remdesivir – another antiviral drug refined at Southern Research, now used around the world to treat coronavirus.
How research creates major economic impact
But that’s just the beginning, says Josh Carpenter, Ph.D., who was named CEO and president of Southern Research in May 2021. Carpenter’s vision is to expand the institute’s facilities and leverage of its successful partnerships with the University of Alabama at Birmingham to create a National Center of Excellence in Pandemic Preparedness in Birmingham. The same facilities will expand work on cancer drug development, Carpenter says.
The project should generate not only scientific advances, but also economic gains for Birmingham and Alabama.
“Southern Research was founded as an economic development institute to create jobs through research and produce new discoveries and innovations,” Carpenter said. “That original impulse from 80 years ago is what we want to return to now.”
Southern Research has 400 full-time employees, generates $80 million in revenue, and has an annual economic impact of $150 million. One of Carpenter’s first actions as CEO was to sell Southern Research’s facility in Frederick, Maryland to its strategic research partner Tonix Pharmaceuticals and move those operations to Birmingham. The sale brought $17.5 million in capital investment to Birmingham, nearly 50 new jobs in Alabama with an average salary of $100,000 per year, and $45 million in recurring direct and indirect economic impact.
Prior to joining Southern Research, Carpenter served as Director of Innovation and Economic Opportunity for the City of Birmingham.
“During the pandemic, approximately 85,000 Jefferson County workers filed for unemployment,” Carpenter said. “I knew that in my next role, I wanted to focus on quality jobs that provide sustainable wages and family benefits. What economic development research tells us is that the development and maintenance of high quality institutions is directly correlated to economic growth, and perhaps even a driver of it. »
Carpenter is in talks with state and local leaders to support a new $84 million facility at Southern Research’s Southside campus that will double its BSL-3 lab space. The new facility could create nearly 200 new permanent science jobs, $26.2 million in new annual payrolls, and $84.7 million in new spending and other economic outcomes, Carpenter said. He will also expand the institute’s drug discovery and development partnerships with UAB in the key areas of infectious diseases and cancer immunotherapy.
“We have a state-of-the-art facility where we can manage COVID-19 and any other highly pathogenic virus,” said Subash Das, DVM, Ph.D., who joined Southern Research as director of the infectious disease research in July. 2021. “A lot of our studies need BSL-3 containment labs. We have so much contract work and we could do more with more space.
Das is among several important hires at Southern Research made possible by the sale of the institute’s Frederick facilities and whose expertise will allow Southern Research to aggressively expand research related to coronavirus and influenza.
- Das joined Southern Research from Takeda Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he worked developing vaccines against dengue, Zika, chikungunya, foot-and-mouth disease, and other viruses, taking them “from basic research with the vaccine to the stage of clinical trials where they could be marketed,” he said. In addition to coronavirus research, Das said, “we want to develop a universal flu vaccine, which does not would not need to be changed every year in response to the type of influenza virus circulating in the population.”
- Principal Scientist Kempaiah Rayavara, Ph.D., joined Southern Research from the Medical Branch of the University of Texas at Galveston, where he worked on an NIAID-funded project to establish small animal models for screening for medical countermeasures against SARS-CoV-2. He established a transgenic mouse model that is highly permissive and lethal for SARS-CoV-2 infection, which is crucial for testing potential vaccines and treatments for COVID-19. “Many candidate vaccines and therapeutics have been successfully tested in this mouse model, and the model will be used at Southern Research to screen more vaccines and therapeutics,” Rayavara said.
- Scientist Arathy Nair, Ph.D., was also drawn to Southern Research by the opportunity to bring promising therapies into the clinic. Before coming to Birmingham, Nair studied avian viruses in India, then worked on tick-borne diseases and vaccines at the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine. “We were the first to develop vaccines for rickettsia and Rocky Mountain spotted fever,” Nair said. At Southern Research, she will lead preclinical testing for the development of coronavirus and influenza vaccines.
Carpenter says strategic hires like these create incredible potential for Southern Research, especially in concert with partners like UAB.
“UAB conducts more than $600 million in external research each year, and Southern Research does $40 million at the Southside campus,” he said. “That’s a total of nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars in biological research within a 25-block radius. Extend that to 40 blocks and you have UAB Medicine, Children’s of Alabama, the VA Medical Center, and St. Vincent’s, which see nearly 3.5 million patients a year. This concentrated expertise in patient care and research and development means more efficient clinical trials and opportunities to create many good jobs.
Joint ventures create an excellent return on investment
Southern Research partners with UAB in three primary ways, Carpenter explains: joint ventures, sponsored research collaborations, and organic research collaborations.
The prototype joint venture is the Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance, which was launched in 2009 with the goal of translating innovative research at UAB Marnix E. Heersink Medical School labs into new treatments by leveraging expertise in Drug Discovery and Development from Southern Research. Over the past 12 years, 38 projects have been launched through ADDA, and there are currently six drugs in the alliance’s pipeline, including potential treatments for cancer, Parkinson’s disease and diabetes.
“I believe we’re the only major academic medical center with a dedicated drug discovery partner right up the block,” said Richard Whitley, MD, professor emeritus at UAB. “Southern Research has high-throughput screening, medical chemists and structural biologists with extensive experience working with the FDA to get drugs approved. They have a great history, and with Carpenter as CEO, the partnership close relationship between UAB and Southern Research is about to grow stronger.
ADDA builds teams of specialists from UAB and Southern Research around each potential new drug project, with funding of $50,000 per year for two years. Just like in the pharmaceutical industry, projects are held to strict deadlines and regular go/no go decisions at every major testing milestone. Working with Southern Research allows UAB researchers to transport innovative ideas from their labs through the so-called Valley of Death, in which projects are too commercially focused to receive federal research funding but not yet. promising enough to attract significant pharmaceutical or biotechnology investment. “UAB specializes in basic research and clinical trials, and Southern Research specializes in drug discovery and development,” said Stephanie Moore, Ph.D., associate director of ADDA. “These partnerships make sense.” ADDA’s translational research opportunities are an important recruiting tool when UAB recruits promising researchers to Birmingham, adds Whitley.
Whitley relied on the ADDA model to successfully compete for major funding from the National Institutes of Health. In 2019, its Center for Antiviral Drug Discovery and Development received a five-year, $37.5 million grant from NIAID to study and develop treatments for high-priority infections, including influenza, dengue, Zika – and the SARS and MERS coronaviruses. The first tests that led to the approval of the antiviral drug remdesivir as a treatment for COVID-19 were carried out by Southern Research’s AD3C, Whitley said. Another research partnership sponsored by UAB-Southern Research is the UAB Research Center of Excellence in Arsenicals. It received $18.9 million in 2018 to develop countermeasures against chemical warfare threats.
Through the efforts of UAB and its partners, philanthropic support, internal funding from Southern Research, and state funding, ADDA has received approximately $15 million in investment. Through this investment, UAB has received more than $100 million in grants and Southern Research has received more than $60 million, Carpenter said. “That’s a 20-to-1 return on investment for UAB and a 12-to-1 return on investment for Southern Research,” he said. “We can combine our efforts on these extremely competitive grants.”