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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Amgen, Rural Atmosphere Lured Biotech Firms to Area

Industry: Company became the magnet for others, many of which moved to county to sell their products or expertise to the Thousand Oaks giant.

August 13, 2000|MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the sterile, climate-controlled rooms at Baxter International's Hyland Immuno manufacturing plant in Thousand Oaks, hundreds of masked and gowned workers are making a blood-clotting drug for hemophiliacs.

Nearby, at Ambryx Biotechnology, two scientists in a much smaller lab think they have found a way to make a human protein trigger cancer cells to self-destruct without damaging normal cells. They hope their research--only involving mice so far--will eventually wipe out prostate cancer and leukemia.

Elsewhere in the county are similar scenes. At Twyford Plant Laboratories Inc. in Santa Paula, workers are cloning plants. At Technical Associates Inc. in Ventura, scientists analyze DNA for use in court cases.

These are just a few of the biotech companies operating in Ventura County. The biggest of them all is Amgen Inc. And that is where the county's biotech story begins.

It was the absence of businesses, people and traffic that led investors and scientists to pick Thousand Oaks as their headquarters when they hatched Applied Molecular Genetics in 1980.

Biotechnology was a new field then, its key players comprised of a handful of companies, including Genentech in the Bay Area and Biogen in the Boston area.

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Amgen's investors came from Northern California, but the company itself needed to be closer to researchers at UCLA. They looked throughout Los Angeles County at first, but learned many key prospective employees had reservations about moving there.

That led Bruce Wallace, Amgen's first staff employee, to scout Thousand Oaks, then still a relatively new city. Wallace looked at school scores, housing prices, climate, air pollution, industrial space and traffic.

"It all supported Ventura County," Wallace recalls.

Amgen initially wasn't sure about its direction. Interests ranged from agricultural biotech projects to antibiotic development to the geological uses of bacteria in extracting oil from shale.

But Amgen was also in the nationwide race to identify the gene sequence of a protein known as erythropoietin, or EPO, identified in the 1970s as a stimulant for red blood-cell growth in the kidneys.

The company's historic turning point came when an Amgen scientist isolated the human gene that makes EPO. In 1989, Epogen was introduced as Amgen's first product. Used to treat anemia in kidney dialysis patients and chemotherapy patients, it remains the company's top-selling product, accounting for more than half of Amgen's $3 billion in sales last year.

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Since Epogen, Amgen's breakthroughs have become routine. The company now also makes Neupogen, which stimulates white blood-cell growth, and Infergen, used to treat chronic Hepatitis-C. It is now working on biotech treatments for rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, obesity and Alzheimer's disease.

Along the way, the company became the magnet for other biotech firms, many of which located here specifically to sell their products or expertise to Amgen.

Baxter, whose Hyland Immuno division is headquartered in Glendale, chose a site just down the street from Amgen in 1994 when looking for a place to put a new manufacturing plant.

It is now the second-largest biotech employer in the county, with a staff of 460 and plans to expand to 600 by next year, according to manager Paul Marshall. To ensure staffing, the company tapped Moorpark College to build a program that focuses on biotech manufacturing.

Biotech suppliers in the county also have expanded as the industry has grown worldwide. BioSource International Inc., based in Camarillo, sells test kits, antibodies, protein and DNA segments used in immunological research. Medical Analysis Systems Inc. in Camarillo also sells to biotech labs.

Another biotech supply firm is Valex Corp., which started in Ventura in 1984 and built its business selling pipes, tubes and fittings to the semiconductor industry. Today, it has found biotech clients in Amgen as well as national giant Genentech and is developing a product line tailored to them.

Not all the county's biotech firms, however, are here because of Amgen.

One example is Medical Analysis Systems Inc., whose founder chose Camarillo in 1974 for its climate and then-rural feel.

Then there is the entire area of agricultural biotech research. The primary lure there is Ventura County's farming industry, the 10th-largest agricultural-producing county in the state.

Most of the agricultural biotechnology research today in Ventura County is not controversial, growers say. Agricultural Commissioner Earl McPhail said he knows of no genetically engineered crops being grown here.

Twyford, whose Santa Paula operation has been around since 1984, is a division of Japan-based Kirin Brewery Co. Kirin does some biotech research, but Twyford does not. It will, however, most likely be involved in cloning a growing number of bioengineered plants in years to come, Vice President Greg Lloyd said.

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