Booming dietary supplement industry works wonders for Wisconsin

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For Immediate Release
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Kristen Schremp
Public Relations
KAS Publicity
(703) 928-5527

Booming dietary supplement industry works wonders for Wisconsin

Brothertown, Wis. (Jul 4, 2009) — The corn crop sprouting on Bill Hansen’s 150-acre farm in Calumet County has a secret: It’s fortified with special traits at the microscopic level.

Such genetic alterations begin with the corn seed, which allows it to grow into a plant resistant to root worms and insects, disease and drought, as well as the popular herbicide Roundup.

Such genetic alterations begin with the corn seed, which allows it to grow into a plant resistant to root worms and insects, disease and drought, as well as the popular herbicide Roundup.

It’s important because encroaching weeds compete for the same moisture as crops; killing them without collateral damage to the corn makes for a more productive field with noticeably taller stalks, Hansen said.

Genetically altered crops have become the norm. Eighty percent to 90 percent of all soybeans planted in Wisconsin possess what the agricultural community refers to as biotech yield traits, said Kevin Jarek, crops, soils and horticulture agent for the University of Wisconsin-Extension in Outagamie County.

That’s also true for 40 percent of the corn grown in the state.

“When you look at crops that have been grown with biotech improvements in the state, it’s grown exponentially from where it was five or 10 years ago,” Jarek said.

But Wisconsin’s blooming biotech industry doesn’t just protect corn. It helps protect the state’s economic interests, too.

The industry in Wisconsin, home to more than 400 biotech companies employing 34,000 people, is among the nation’s largest.

On the UW campus alone, the $841 million plowed into sponsored academic research and development ranks the university third nationally behind Johns Hopkins and the University of California, San Francisco, in research and development clout, according to a study from Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.

That investment has turned out to be a hedge against hard times; notwithstanding advances in crop resistance and human immunology, the biotech industry’s importance now might also be measured in the ways it has helped protect Wisconsin from the recession, during which 14.5 million Americans and 129,000 Wisconsinites have lost their jobs.

The industry, best known for medical advances and the often controversial field of stem-cell research, is credited for advances not only in agribusiness, but also in pharmaceuticals, diagnostic instruments, therapeutics and breakthrough treatments for chronic illnesses.

Last year it rang up $8 billion in sales for Wisconsin-based companies, according to the latest figures from the state Department of Commerce.

The number of biotech companies has nearly doubled in the state from the 212 in existence in 2005, the first year the department began keeping track.

Driven By Brainpower

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s growing research center just west of campus is the centerpiece and engine of the state’s biotech industry, with the heaviest concentration of biotech workers and companies in the state. Other centers are in Milwaukee and Marshfield.

The state is a major player in the industry because it was the first to establish a university-based means of dealing with technology transfer — a term that refers to the commercialization of scientific discoveries, said Dick Leinenkugel, secretary of the state Department of Commerce.

University research flowed to private companies through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which was the first university-based technology transfer organization in the United States when it was founded in 1925, Leinenkugel said.

The foundation has licensed nearly 3,000 patented discoveries, Leinenkugel said.

Strict protocols for licensing need to conform to the guidelines from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before a drug can be introduced to the public marketplace.

“They license the technology to companies who come in using that brainpower created by professors using labs, and it’s returned the licensed revenue back to the universities,” he said. “It’s returned $940 million since the 1920s.”

The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 also helped the rise of the industry, giving universities the right to claim title to inventions made during federally sponsored research.

Wisconsin’s long history in biotechnology includes the development of vitamins B and D as well as the blood-thinner Warfarin, Still said.

Vitamin B helps regulate metabolism, maintain skin and muscle tone, enhance the functioning of the immune system and guard against pancreatic cancer.

Vitamin D regulates calcium and phosphorous levels in the blood and bolsters the immune system by promoting anti-tumor activity.

Wisconsin also is where Dr. Howard Temin, a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize, did pioneering work in RNA technology in the 1960s and ’70s that brought the technology for DNA into the next stages.

Temin was instrumental in challenging accepted theories that DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, a blueprint for life, could only flow in one direction: to RNA, or ribonucleic acid.

He proved the flow could occur backward, from RNA to DNA, a process known as reverse transcriptase. Reverse transcriptase is central to understanding the infectious nature of retroviruses and several that cause human disease, including AIDS and leukemia.

The Gold Standard

Biotech, an industry that boasts $60 billion in gross revenues nationally for publicly traded companies, runs on huge sums of money. Nearly one of every four dollars that goes to research comes from private sources.

The industry’s reach links investors, researchers, pharmaceutical company CEOs, doctors and diabetics.

Charlie Goff of Appleton heads the investment firm New Capital Management, which has developed a $10 million fund. More than six dozen investors play the role of “angel” — an anonymous donor who provides all the funds to budget operations of small firms that hope to make it big. At last count, six of the eventual 12 or 14 companies that New Capital Fund’s board hopes to fund will be biotech-related firms.

Three of the six startup firms supported by New Capital are biotech-related companies specializing in diagnostics, including Renovar, a business that grew out of a leading kidney-transplant surgeon’s desire to better understand the condition of the transplanted kidney.

The surgeon whose tests paced the formation of Renovar was able to identity some specific proteins in the urine that indicate changes in the condition of a kidney, Goff said.

“The gold standard right now is to take a biopsy,” Goff said. “They’re very invasive. They’re very painful. They’re very expensive. And, frankly, they don’t help the kidney a whole lot.”

Diagnostic advances are common in biotechnology.

Plexus Corp., the latest Fox Cities firm to get its foot in the biotech door, is a Neenah contract-electronics manufacturer working on a new technology for screening for human papillomavirus DNA samples, which have an established link to cervical cancer.

Plexus wants to provide a highly automated solution to current screening methods, which are performed manually. The process is much slower and subject to human errors. Toward that end, the firm recently closed a deal with Netherlands-based Qiagen, a world leader in sample and assay technologies.

“Plexus sees this relationship as an indication of how we can utilize our full engineering capabilities for our customers developing complex medical equipment,” said Steve Frisch, senior vice president for global engineering services for Plexus.

A ‘Unique Health Solution’

Another Neenah-based company, Ayurvedic-Life International, a small biotech firm, is looking to forge a partnership that will lead to licensing its products as a drug under Federal Drug Administration regulations for naturally derived remedies for managing diabetes, cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity problems.

The firm, founded in 2002, is engaged on several fronts to put out products that aid people with health problems, including a proposed new therapy for Type 2 diabetes that’s under development.

President and Chief Executive Officer Arun K. Chatterji, 69, of Neenah is a lifelong researcher and consultant. Chatterji was raised in humble surroundings in a small village near Calcutta, India.

In 1948, when Chatterji was 8 years old, he played soccer, using a green coconut as a ball, with children descended from Santal tribesmen — hunters turned agronomists.

More than 60 years later, he has not forsaken his roots. The company conducts operations through extensive outsourcing that includes dealings with tribes in Chatterji’s native India.

A compound obtained from the leaves of a woody vine that only grows to perfection in a certain Indian region is procured through the Santal people, who harvest the leaves in a particular way, having used them for centuries as a folk medicine.

Chatterji perfected the methods by which the compound is extracted.

“My invention of the Ayurvedic virgin isolate technology coupled with the superb cellular-level research performed at King’s College-London has the potential to bring a truly unique health solution to millions of people worldwide,” he said.

Research conducted at King’s College-London validates the Gymnema sylvestre extract for clinical use, according to a research paper.

One U.S. company and another overseas is licensed to supply a dietary supplement rooted in Chatterji’s breakthrough research that can be found on store shelves now.

Such breakthroughs invariably begin with investors.


Pete Bach • Gannett Wisconsin Media

Media relations, advertising and publicity contact: Kristen Schremp at or 703.928.5527

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