May 18, 2004
-- CropChoice news -- Penni Crabtree, San Diego Union-Tribune,
05/07/04: Epicyte Pharmaceutical, one of the
last vestiges of the San Diego biotechnology community's
attempt to become an agricultural biotech stronghold,
has closed and sold its assets to a North Carolina company.
The privately held San Diego biotech, which at its peak
employed about 50, has been purchased by Pittsboro,
N.C.-based Biolex, another privately owned biotech.
Financial terms were not disclosed when the deal was
Epicyte helped pioneer the genetic engineering of corn
crops to produce medicines, but suffered delays and
setbacks in research efforts to develop drugs to treat
herpes and respiratory syncytial virus, a respiratory
ailment that afflicts infants and the elderly.
Last year, in an attempt to revive investor interest,
Epicyte shifted its focus to creating plant-based versions
of leading monoclonal antibodies, such as Biogen Idec's
cancer drug Rituxan.
Yet that effort failed to bring in venture capital investment,
in part because Epicyte's experimental products were
too early in development, said Debbie Robertson, executive
director of intellectual property for Epicyte.
"I'm happy, at least, that the intellectual know-how
went to a company that can use it, that it didn't just
go by the wayside, because I truly believe in it,"
said Robertson. "But . . . shoot."
Biolex, like Epicyte, is focused on so-called bio-pharming,
the manufacture of monoclonal antibodies and other biological
therapeutics in plants. But Biolex uses a genetically
altered aquatic plant grown indoors in a secure facility,
avoiding some of the concerns about outdoor cross-contamination
with traditional field crops that have haunted the industry.
The demise of Epicyte is the latest casualty for the
region's fledgling agricultural biotechnology industry,
which just five years ago appeared to hold considerable
In 1999, Stephen Briggs, the head of the San Diego-based
Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute, which was
building a major research campus here, predicted San
Diego could become the "Silicon Valley of agricultural
Several small San Diego agricultural biotechs had already
emerged, including Mycogen, Akkadix Corp. and Epicyte,
and the research institute was expected to generate
more agriculture-based ventures.
Yet, despite a sturdy start, the industry didn't retain
a strong hold here. A consumer backlash against genetically-modified
food, along with high-profile industry blunders, helped
nip investor enthusiasm in the bio-engineered bud.
In 2000, Aventis, the maker of StarLink corn, was forced
to recall taco shells and other products contaminated
by genetically-modified animal feed, which had not been
cleared for human consumption.
Two years later, a Texas biotech caused a scandal when
federal regulators found that 500,000 bushels of soybeans
and been contaminated by biotech corn engineered to
Those mistakes, along with a stagnant farm economy and
an investment drought for biotech that has only eased
in recent months, took its toll. In 2000, the Novartis
Agricultural Discovery Institute was folded into Switzerland's
In 2002, Syngenta closed the La Jolla unit, laying off
about 100 of its 180 employees, moving its plant genomics
program to North Carolina and shifting the remainder
of its employees and projects to another local biotech,
Other San Diego agricultural biotechs also disappeared:
Mycogen was purchased by Dow Chemical, and Akkadix Corp.
faded from the scene. Dow still retains a plant bio-pharmaceuticals
research unit in San Diego, but moved a second agricultural
biotech unit out of the state.
Briggs, one of 77 former Syngenta employees who now
work at Diversa, said agricultural biotechnology has
contracted, along with the farm economy and the companies
that supply seeds and other products.
"Companies have had to reduce their investment
in everything they do, including research," said
Briggs, senior vice president of corporate research
and technology at Diversa, which is developing some
crop and animal feed enzymes.
Briggs said Epicyte faced one of the toughest tasks
in agricultural biotechnology.
"Drug development is probably the most conservative
industrial process in the world," Briggs said.
"What Epicyte and the company that bought them
is trying to do is revolutionize the production of therapeutics
- and it is hard to make a revolution."