When Dr. Melissa Davis runs a genomic sequencing analysis in her lab, she sees the future of medicine for cancer patients. She and her students have identified genetic signatures in breast and prostate tumors that are unique by race and ethnicity, opening the door for discoveries in precision medicine.
Advances in scientific research in recent years have pointed to higher rates of certain cancers across different populations, as well as different responses to treatment. Black women, for instance, develop a severe form of breast cancer at an earlier age and don’t respond to typical therapies as well. Stomach cancer appears to be more prevalent in Southeast Asians, while lung cancer is higher in East Asians and esophageal cancer is more common in European populations. With a better understanding of what’s happening at the molecular level, scientists and doctors can develop better tools and treatments to help patients.
When we sequence the genomes of diverse groups of patients who have different genetic backgrounds, we can begin to unravel which genetic drivers are more prevalent and their immune response to therapies,” Davis says. “Then the next step is to translate that to the clinic.”
Davis is eager to do this work in Georgia, which has one of the fastest-growing life sciences and biotechnology sectors in the country. Her full-circle journey, which began as a PhD student in molecular genetics at the University of Georgia, led to postdoctoral fellowships in functional genomics at the Yale School of Medicine and the University of Chicago; faculty positions at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York and Henry Ford Health System in Detroit; and a role as scientific director of the International Center for the Study of Breast Cancer Subtypes in New York.
Now at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Davis is the inaugural Georgia Research Alliance Distinguished Investigator, where she spearheads the new Institute of Genomic Medicine. The institute builds on her genomic research and aims to create the tools to develop innovative therapies and teach a new healthcare workforce how to administer new tests and treatments to patients. “I felt a pull back to Georgia to make sure the work we’re doing can immediately translate into the population,” she says. “The partnerships across major institutions in Georgia and a multidisciplinary approach with geneticists, clinicians, engineers, and educators will empower everything we do.”
Georgia’s dynamic life sciences industry plays a major role in research and innovation for a variety of animal and human health needs—agricultural and industrial biosciences, cell therapies, digital health tools, medical devices, regenerative therapies, testing and medical labs, wearables, and vaccines. The industry’s job growth has risen 20 percent since 2015, doubling the overall private sector growth in the state and outpacing the 19 percent increase at the national level. With 4,000 organizations and 78,000 direct jobs, the industry has a $50 billion total economic impact in Georgia.
“Life sciences encompasses everything to heal, fuel, and feed the world,” says Maria Thacker Goethe, chief executive officer for the Center for Global Health Innovation, an Atlanta-based nonprofit organization that brings together leaders in global health, health technology, and life sciences. “The growth of the sector has been consistent for decades, and in general, it has been one of the most resilient industries during crises.”
The list of global health organizations with headquarters in Georgia is impressive—American Cancer Society, Arthritis Foundation, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Global Health Crisis Coordination Center, Task Force for Global Health, and the Carter Center, to name a few. What supports that is a skilled pipeline of talent, as well as new research and inventions, that come from university partnerships across Augusta University, Emory University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia State University, Kennesaw State University, Morehouse School of Medicine, and the University of Georgia. Major medical companies such as Moderna and Takeda have established new hubs in the state in recent years, and Georgia-based companies such as UPS and Delta Air Lines have expanded their operations to support vaccine and healthcare distribution.
“With our economic and innovation ecosystem in Georgia, we’re uniquely primed to be one of the big hubs in life sciences,” Thacker Goethe says. “With the expertise in our backyard, you don’t have to fly elsewhere.”
Georgia also serves as a major logistical hub for life sciences and biotechnology companies that ship nationally and internationally, with 80 percent of U.S. markets available via a two-hour $ ight or two-day truck transportation. Due to Atlanta’s prominent location in the Southeast, four of the top five global companies for refrigerated warehousing are located in Georgia, and eight companies at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport are certified for reliable handling and storage of pharmaceuticals. “When you look at Georgia and think about the film industry, you can see how the state has progressed. Now when talking about life sciences, you can see all of these different pieces assembling so the state can be a major player [in this industry, too],” says Andrew Pazahanick, managing partner of NexGen Biobanking in Norcross.
Pazahanick and business partner John Norton, who have worked together in cold chain solutions and specialty medical gasses, launched their biorepository business this year after seeing the infrastructure development across the state. Biorepositories store samples of biological material, such as blood, tissue, and plant matter, for lab research, including the type of cancer genomic sequencing work that Davis does.
Pazahanick notes that nearly 80 percent of the world’s cryogenic freezers, which are used in biorepositories to store samples at ultra-cold temperatures, are manufactured in Georgia at MVE Biological Solutions in Canton and IC Biomedical in Cartersville. NexGen Biobanking also works with UPS Healthcare and Fedex Healthcare Solutions to ship biological material. This type of infrastructure support convinced them to build their company in Georgia.
In addition, Pazahanick points to the collaborative support of the Center for Global Health Innovation, which is building a Global Health Innovation District in Midtown Atlanta’s Tech Square. Slated to open in 2023, the 47-story physical hub will include a conference center and training facilities, shared wet lab benches and suites, a working kitchen with food service and coffee bars, and office space for corporations, nonprofits, universities, and venture firms in the life sciences industry. “When you’ve got the CDC, the universities, and cooperation among companies, you’ve got the right culture here to grow the industry,” Pazahanick says.
Underlying the strategic partnerships and infrastructure is strong investment in the life sciences industry from all areas—private funders, state dollars, and university-led
research and development. In fact, Georgia is ranked ninth in university research and development dollars in the U.S., generating $2 billion per year in public and
The Georgia Research Alliance (GRA) plays a major role in this success by investing in both talent and technology, expanding research lab capacity, and launching companies from university-based discoveries and inventions. Since its founding in 1990, GRA has become a national model for university research collaboration and public-private investment. In 2022 alone, GRA researchers attracted nearly $900 million in non-state dollars from groups such as the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation.
“Georgia’s universities are at the heart of our ecosystem,” says GRA President Susan Shows. “They are the magnets for all kinds of opportunities and resources for the industry, and GRA has been part of a long-term, 30-year, strategic effort to invest in key life sciences areas.”
GRA recruits scholars, such as Davis, from across the world to advance research and discoveries, with the ultimate goal of building a company or translating the innovations into clinical practice to benefit patients. Current scholars are creating new vaccines, improving the peanut crop in Georgia, and developing therapies for
stress and brain health.
“Collaboration is our secret sauce,” Shows says. “It’s not uncommon for researchers, after they’ve been here for a year or so, to comment on how the collaborative efforts really are different here. So much can be accomplished when people work together.”
Micron Biomedical, for instance, began in Dr. Mark Prausnitz’s labs at Georgia Tech, which received funding from the GRA Venture Fund. He and his research team developed a method to administer vaccines and therapeutics through microneedle technology. The patch-like invention can be self-administered and doesn’t require intramuscular injection or cold chain logistics, which will be critical for making vaccines and drugs easier to distribute globally. Micron is now conducting clinical trials of a measles-rubella vaccine and manufacturing patches for clinical evaluation at the CDC. In November 2022, the company secured Series A financing to commercialize its technology; it also partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UNICEF to reach children worldwide with a technology that doesn’t require needles.
“Mark and his cofounders were able to build this company the way they wanted it due to the funding and incubation structure available to them,” says Steven Damon, CEO of Micron Biomedical. “They were able to focus on the company and technology as opposed to making a board of directors happy, which allowed them to create a truly strong and stable company. The infrastructure and network of smart people across the industry made that possible.”
The growth in Georgia’s life sciences industry also stems from a major focus on workforce development. Georgia was seventh in the nation for net domestic migration in 2020-2021, while Atlanta was the top city for job seekers in the country. In 2021, Georgia also passed the Life Sciences Manufacturing Job Tax Credit, a $1,250 bonus (added to the existing job tax credit) for creating jobs related to pharmaceuticals, medicines, and medical equipment and supplies.
“We are seeing new companies not only start in Georgia but also relocate to Georgia, creating thousands of new jobs,” says Sherry Farrugia, chief executive officer of the Global Center for Medical Innovation, a nonprofit innovation center in Atlanta that assists with partnerships, development, and manufacturing of new technology and medical devices.
“During the pandemic, entrepreneurs and researchers who had never been involved in healthcare realized that their skill set was transferable to solving healthcare problems,” she says. “It takes a lot of coordination and logistics, but if we work together and focus on a real need, we can solve very complex problems in healthcare through innovation quickly.”
Located 30 minutes east of Atlanta in Stanton Springs, the Georgia Quick Start BioScience Training Center offiers customized workforce training with state-of-the-art technology, including centrifugation, chromatography, nanofiltration, and aseptic production. The 40,000-square-foot facility opened in 2015 across from Baxalta’s bio-manufacturing facility. In recent years, other major pharmaceutical companies such as Boston Scientific, Moderna, Takeda, and UCB have grown their footprints in Georgia.
Boehringer Ingelheim is another company currently in expansion mode. In addition to its U.S. Animal Health headquarters in Duluth and a poultry vaccine manufacturing plant in Gainesville, the company is investing $57 million to expand its Animal Health Global Innovation Center in Athens, which will grow its partnership with the University of Georgia and increase lab space for additional research and development capabilities.
Danimer Scientific, which develops and manufactures biodegradable materials, has been headquartered in Bainbridge for more than a decade. It has begun constructing an additional 2-million-square-foot facility near their 25-acre campus. The expansion will add 400 jobs and quadruple its 100-person workforce in Decatur County, where employees are creating innovations such as bioplastic straws, new food packaging and bottling, and biopolymers for compostable dental floss.
Across the state, Georgia Bio’s Rural Teacher Training Initiative provides supplies, industry speakers, and immersive teacher training to increase knowledge in the classroom. In the next three years, more than 40,000 students will receive an introduction to life sciences careers and have an opportunity to connect with Georgia’s workforce pipeline.
Beyond that, university partnerships at the community level will continue to grow. At the Morehouse School of Medicine, for instance, the advancement of health equity is part of the institution’s social mission, focusing on people of color and underserved urban and rural populations.
“Morehouse is there to teach the workforce to go out and do it, and I want to be part of that,” Davis says. “I want to create the tools we need and the therapies we need from that space. I think it will be much more impactful and transformative to do it right there in the community.”