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Nov 17, 2016

Building Biotech Through Business-Science Partnerships

Sponsored Content provided by Daniel G. Baden - Executive Principal, Marine Biotechnology in North Carolina (MARBIONC)

When telling the story of UNCW’s Crest Research Park and MARBIONC, I always find myself emphasizing the close relationships between academic researchers and associated businesses, many of which share quarters on our seaside campus.

An especially fruitful aspect of this science-to-commerce connection is the Business of Biotechnology program, which gives post-doctoral scientists the chance to pursue both angles in parallel.

Students are able to continue their work in marine biotechnology while earning a master of business administration through a special
program for working professionals offered at UNCW’s Cameron School of Business.

I’m delighted to say that three such specialists have either remained at or returned to UNCW and are now helping to advance both marine biotechnology and potential commercial applications for our state.

Dr. Md. Shah Alam is a research associate professor in the Center for Marine Science who specializes in aquaculture.  After studying and earning degrees in his native Bangladesh, as well as Japan, Alam was among the first to enroll in the Business of Biotech program when it began in 2005.

It was a good fit, Alam said, since he could get practical experience in business without having to put his research on hold. He pursued his MBA after his advanced study of raising flounder and other fin-fish, as well as shrimp, in Japan, where he earned his Ph.D. in fisheries science and completed a post-doctoral fellowship.

All that made him well-qualified to answer a call from UNCW and MARBIONC, where he now works to develop aquaculture in collaboration with local entrepreneurs.

His focus on farm-raising valuable food fish with a high potential for regional markets - notably black sea bass, flounder and pink snapper - has put him on the road. He works with regional feed mills and livestock-raising operations that, until recently, focused entirely on land-based food animals, such as chickens, turkeys and pigs. Alam’s business training is valuable as he works with these enterprises to find new markets for their products.

Through the process, he is studying how well fish grow when fed nutrients from common N.C. agricultural products - soybeans, widely grown in our region; cottonseeds, a currently underused and undervalued resource; and poultry by-product meal, a source of protein.

If such commodities can help create a high-profit product for fish farmers, it’s a classic win-win situation for both rural and coastal communities. Finding fish meal alternatives has become necessary to reduce the cost of feed and aquaculture’s dependency on marine ingredients.

Dr. Patrick Erwin is a microbiologist who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Alabama at Birmingham before receiving his MBA at UNCW. A National Science Foundation fellowship then allowed him to work for several years in Spain in both government research and academic capacities.

Marine Biologist Dr. Susanna Lopez-Legentil earned a Ph.D. at the University of Barcelona then received a Fulbright fellowship to continue her research at UNCW in 2006. She earned her MBA here in 2009. A native of Spain, she returned home to take an assistant professorship at the University of Barcelona.

It’s no coincidence that these two scholars went to Spain at the same time; Erwin and Lopez-Legentil are married.

Eventually, appropriate openings at UNCW for each came up at the same time. They chose to make the move, in part, because more research opportunities in academia exist in the United States than in other countries, Lopez-Legentil explained.

Chief among her projects is work with invasive species like sea quirts that are creating problems for aquaculture on the coast. Though sea squirts are common worldwide, a number of little-understood species have showed up where they aren’t native, mostly by riding on ships’ hulls. Filter feeders themselves with a habit of gluing themselves to fixed objects, they tend to foul oyster cages and compete with them for food.

She said her studies focus on “what makes their success and establishment in a new location possible,” and, from there, hopefully learning how to combat them and mitigate their negative effects.

Aside from professional motivations, returning to North Carolina was personal for Lopez-Legentil.

 “I had the best, most fond memories of Wilmington and my time in North Carolina,” she noted.

Her husband has focused on restoration of coral reefs - crucial ocean habitats coming under tremendous strain as a result of rising seawater temperatures and changes in chemistry. As a microbiologist, he is studying the single-cell organisms that live cooperatively with the coral polyps, typically providing them with both their vivid colors and with nutrients. When corals become stressed, they can expel their tiny guests, leading to “bleaching” and death.

While he primarily teaches students who are focusing on biomedical careers, and thus need to understand microbiology, his research in “microbiomes” has put him back in salt water. Microbiome refers to the interactions between microbes and plants and animals, including coral reef sponges. A new project involves collecting “gut flora” from marine mammals like dolphins and seals that become stranded and die. Researchers hope that by analyzing these complex living communities, they can learn how their host animals became sick or disoriented.

UNCW manages a large collection of marine-mammal samples, which provides a unique resource for a qualified microbiologist and is, in fact, one of the reasons Erwin returned.

He chose to pursue the business of biotechnology program during his earlier time at UNCW, he said, because it applied aspects of technology to real-world commercial issues. His MBA work included formal training in how to advance research to market.

Like his wife, Erwin has a fondness for the area.

“We love Wilmington. We really like the city,” he said. “And having worked here at the Center for Marine Science, we knew what a great facility this is.”

UNCW CREST Research Park is a frontrunner in marine biotech research and development. Researchers are exploring the potential of natural products derived from the sea to treat or cure human diseases and meet other important needs. Discover why rising biotechnology and life sciences groups from all over the country are moving to CREST. UNCW CREST Research Park offers top-notch commercial laboratories available for lease at affordable rates, flexible terms, and innovative product development opportunities that are unmatched by any other park. Connect with CREST at [email protected] today.


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