Worcester Telegram and Gazette
Thursday, March 6, 2008
Written by Lisa Eckelbecker
GARDNER— The humming sound at New England Peptide LLC emanates from rows of machines painstakingly building chains of amino acids the way a jeweler builds a necklace, link by link.
New England Peptide, a supplier to life science researchers, is doing something similar, building its business from small-scale production to a possible foray into large-scale production for human diagnostics and therapeutics.
“It’s a very significant switch, and one we feel positioned to execute on,” said David W. Robinson, New England Peptide chief executive officer.
The company’s ambitions come at a time when peptides, short bits of proteins, represent a small but expanding number of drug products. Long considered difficult to produce and unstable in the body, peptides have also been considered attractive for their potency and ability to zero in on targets. That has spurred work on formulating peptides, producing them and getting them into patients.
In recent years, newly launched peptide products have included Cubicin, an infection fighter from Cubist Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Lexington, and the anti-HIV drug Fuzeon from F. Hoffmann-LaRoche Ltd. and Trimeris Inc.
Frost & Sullivan, a research firm, estimated earlier in the decade that the worldwide therapeutic peptides market was worth $1 billion with the potential for growth because of dozens of peptide-based products in research and human studies.
Companies that manufacture drugs for others have paid attention. Lonza Group of Switzerland, the giant contract manufacturer that has a plant in Hopkinton, bought peptide maker UCB-Bioproducts of Belgium for about $145 million in 2006.
Founded in 1998, New England Peptide employs 30 people and operates out of a 10,000-square-foot facility that was recently renovated to convert warehouse space to a room for larger-scale production of peptides and instrumentation repair.
The company lists more than 1,000 customers in more than 30 countries. About 75 percent of customers are biotech or pharmaceutical companies, and the rest are split between academic and government researchers, Mr. Robinson said. All of the peptides made at New England Peptide are destined for research projects, but with the recently developed ability to manufacture hundreds of grams of peptides rather than milligrams of peptides, the company is considering an expansion into production for therapeutics.
Producing peptides under the “good manufacturing process” required by the Food and Drug Administration for human treatments would likely mean establishing a second, separate manufacturing site, Mr. Robinson said.
“It will be most likely a distinct facility because we don’t want to impose the cost of FDA requirements on the research business,” Mr. Robinson said.
Mr. Robinson declined to say where a facility might be located or when it might be built.
Meanwhile, New England Peptide churns out peptides in a series of rooms that build the custom peptides amino acid by amino acid, then subjects them to quality analysis, drying and packaging. The final products, powdery white substances packed into labeled plastic vials and cushioned by bubble wrap, get sent to customers by overnight delivery.
Mitchell C. Sanders, executive vice president and founder of Worcester-based ECI Biotech Inc., which orders peptides from New England Peptide, said the quality of the company’s work, its pricing and service won him over. When ECI Biotech has needed peptides quickly, New England Peptide has offered to drive it to them, he said.
“They’re looking at expanding, and as we grow and start to need to make a lot of peptides for our diagnostics and therapeutics, we’re going to continue to use New England Peptide,” he said.
Mr. Robinson came to the business in 2006 when Samuel A. and Jennifer L. Massoni, who started New England Peptide, sold a controlling stake to Wheelock Partners LLC, an investment fund led by Mr. Robinson, said his brother, Benjamin Robinson. The fund focuses on stable New England manufacturing and service businesses in growing industries, and its limited partners include former Maine Gov. Angus King and William Alfond, the former owner of Dexter Shoe Co. and a partner in the Boston Red Sox, according to Wheelock’s Web site.
In addition to overseeing a renovation at New England Peptide, the Robinson brothers have sought to make existing operations more efficient. The company sought assistance from the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership in implementing “Lean Manufacturing,” a method aimed at organizing and streamlining manufacturing operations.
If the company does expand manufacturing, it will likely seek funding from its current investors, Mr. Robinson said.
“The reality is, the market opportunity’s there, and we have great relationships with financing sources,” he said.