One of Maryland’s most innovative companies, where scientists work to develop medical breakthroughs to help with everything from protecting premature babies from serious lung infections to bringing the first—and only—nasal-spray flu vaccine to market, began as barely a blip on the biotechnology radar.
MedImmune, now home to more than 3,500 employees with a base office complex in Gaithersburg and a nearly $600 million manufacturing facility in Frederick, launched in 1988 as a four-person company whose goal then was the same as it is now: to use science to improve people’s lives.
“It’s the MedImmune spirit to charge the hill, carry the flag, and get the products to our patients,” says Gail Wasserman, who came aboard in the company’s second year as the only person in the development department. She’s now senior vice president of development and hardly has to worry about finding co-workers to eat lunch with.
“Now, we have nearly 700 in just development alone,” Wasserman says. “When I look at that progression, it seems just phenomenal to me.”
And even as the company has grown exponentially, what hasn’t changed is the belief that great things are happening every day.
“There’s excitement everywhere,” Wasserman adds.
MedImmune scientist Lori Clarke, a molecular biologist, is humble when asked about her work in the company’s laboratories. She wears a white lab coat and safety glasses and spends much of her day examining things under microscopes, testing cells at the DNA level.
“It does sound very fancy,” she says. “But honestly, working in a lab is very much like following a recipe.”
The “recipes” at MedImmune focus on five key development areas. Infectious disease work involves improving such products as FluMist, the nasal-spray influenza vaccine, and Synagis, a medication given to premature babies to help prevent RSV, a respiratory virus that can be devastating to tiny, developing lungs.
In the respiratory, auto-inflammatory, and auto-immunity pipeline, the group works to develop medications for patients who have such conditions as lupus, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Cancer is another chief research area, including potential treatments for breast and lung cancer, lymphoma, and leukemia. The cardiovascular/gastrointestinal group is investigating ways to help treat such disease as thrombosis, diabetes, and conditions that clog arteries.
And in neuroscience, the company’s team is working to develop therapies for Alzheimer’s disease and chronic pain, among other vexing health issues.
“I believe that we actually let the science drive the business instead of letting the business drive the science,” says Jim Massey, who, as director of corporate compliance, helps make sure the work at MedImmune complies with strict industry standards and federal and international health regulations.
“If you trust the science, I believe that it all falls into place.”
The company now has locations not only in Maryland, but also California, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. In 2007, it became the biotechnology arm of the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. As described on the company website, MedImmune is “a catalyst for change, forging ahead with a spirit of collective creativity and expertise.”
That’s a tall order considering it typically takes more than a decade and sometimes as many as 20 years for a new therapy to go from idea to reality. And then, not only must the science be exact, but there also are safeguards and rules to adhere to in an ever-more-complex medical and regulatory landscape.
“If you think about medical advances over the years, lots have been achieved, but, at the end of the day, there are still a lot of patients waiting for scientists to find answers,” Wasserman says.
Biotechnology as a whole, which is a field of biology and typically produces injection medications rather than pills (like the pharmaceutical industry does), focuses on unmet needs. Simply put, Wasserman says, the work at MedImmune is “turning molecules into medicine.”