In Lab Visit, Murphy Vows Supports For Biotech

By:  Stephanie Addenbrooke
New Haven Independent

Joe Ippolito’s friends warned him against moving to New Haven to begin working at Melinta Therapeutics. “Why not go to Boston or Palo Alto?” they asked.

Ippolito chose to come to New Haven anyway—to help create an investigational antibiotic (delafloxacin) that would treat patients with acute bacterial skin and skin structure infections. Scientists at Melinta like Ippolito are also looking to yield new classes of antibiotics to overcome ESKAPE pathogens. According to Melinta’s Chief Scientific Officer Erin Duffy, some of these infections have proven to be life threatening and resistant to antibiotics currently offered by hospitals.

Ippolito found he had made not only a good career move, but a good geographic move: New Haven proved to be a fun, and affordable place. Now he suggests other people come here.

But he does have concerns about the future. He and his colleagues shared those concerns Thursday afternoon with U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy.

Melinta hopes to have an antibiotic ready for market within the year. But the company has many steps to take before it can see the antibiotic in hospitals and on the shelves. Because, even though Melinta is making impressive strides, the interest in antibiotic research is falling nationwide.

What’s more, New Haven is struggling to attract investors and more scientists. Prospective employees have the same concerns that Ippolito was faced with over a decade ago.

Murphy heard those Thursday afternoon when he toured the company’s headquarters at 300 George St. He met with company employees and executives during the visit.

Murphy told them he is committed to providing the biotech industry with as much support as possible. He called biotech companies like Melintaone of the state’s economic development engines.

“I don’t see any pathway forward for Connecticut’s economy without expansion of companies like yours,” Murphy told executives.

Expansions of such companies will cost money and involve changes to legislation, he was told. A lack of interest from hospitals has left private investment in biotech companies trailing. Currently, hospitals do not receive reimbursement for new drugs, such as the one Melinta is creating. As Chief Commercial Officer Michael Kenston told Murphy, when it can cost $1 billion to see a drug come to market, keeping investors interested is a primary concern.

Despite concerns, members of Melinta had reason to thank Murphy during his visit. In 2011, Murphy was a co-sponsor on the Generating Antibiotic Incentives Now (GAIN) Act, which extended the exclusivity period for new prescription drugs by five years. Kenston explained that these extra five years have been a “survival” tool for many small biotech companies. The government approved generic versions of drugs more quickly than in the past, which discouraged potential investors.

After hearing their concerns, Murphy told Melinta executives that he hopes that US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reform would be discussed in the Senate by the end of the year. One of his goals, he said, is to have hospitals reimbursed when they use antibiotics supported by the GAIN Act. Duffy said these developments would be a crucial development for the company, and others like it.

“If companies like yours don’t succeed, we’re in trouble,” he said.

But, as Ippolito told Murphy, it is not just the investments and support from the government that the company needs. They also need scientists to be interested in New Haven. Even though he told Murphy there are “huge financial incentives” to working in New Haven, with affordable housing in close proximity and the availability of trains.

Ashoke Bhattacharjee, the company’s director of chemistry, told Murphy that he has tried to recruit scientists from other parts of the country who remain uninterested in moving to New Haven. Bhattacharjee, who has been working here since 2002, said the bad reputation New Haven has previously accrued lingers. Scientists moving to the Northeast have usually decided to work in Boston instead, even though New Haven may be closer for some of them.

So, in Murphy’s town hall-style meeting with employees, the conversation focused on one key issue: transportation. Employees asked when Tweed New Haven Airport’s proposed runway-paving job will take place to allow in more flights. They asked about potential improvements to Shoreline East.

Murphy encouraged employees to support a 30-year, $100 billion state transportation overhaul currently being pitched by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. The state’s plan would—among road and rail improvements and new bike- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure—a stop on the New Haven-Springfield commuter rail line closer to Bradley International, the state’s major airport.

Before leaving Melinta Thursday, Murphy told employees to be confident that biotech in the city will continue to grow and flourish. Along with the city itself.

“Today, New Haven is a destination,” Murphy said. “We need to do a better job of marketing what New Haven is, not what you think it is.”