Southern Research has 400 full-time employees, brings in $80 million in revenue and has an annual economic impact of $150 million.
Written by: Matt Windsor
Media contact: Alicia Rohan
Before coronavirus vaccines and treatments proved their value in clinics worldwide, they had to prove their mettle in Birmingham’s Southside. Scientists at Southern Research, working under contracts with major pharmaceutical companies and federal agencies, received nearly $40 million in COVID-related testing and other research contracts after the pandemic began.
In their Biosafety Level 3, or BSL-3, lab, where highly pathogenic viruses such as those that cause COVID-19, tuberculosis and yellow fever can be safely studied, Southern Research scientists continue to study the effects of treatments against COVID-19 variants . The robotic arms in the High-Throughput Screening Center have sifted through tens of thousands of drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration and helped identify dozens with the potential to slow down SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes coronavirus. A COVID-19 vaccine co-developed by Southern Research and Tonix Pharmaceuticals is now in human clinical trials. Researchers at Southern Research are also collaborating with Tonix on a treatment that has proved to be 65 times more potent in early testing than remdesivir — another antiviral drug refined at Southern Research, now used around the world to treat coronavirus.
How research creates major economic impact
But this is only the beginning, says Josh Carpenter, Ph.D., who was named CEO and president of Southern Research in May 2021. Carpenter’s vision is to expand the institute’s facilities and leverage its successful partnerships with the University of Alabama at Birmingham to create a national center of excellence in pandemic preparedness in Birmingham. The same facilities will expand work on cancer drug development, Carpenter says.
The project is expected to yield not only scientific advances but also economic gains for Birmingham and Alabama.
“Southern Research was founded as an economic development institute to create jobs through research and produce new discoveries and innovations,” Carpenter said. “That original impetus from 80 years ago is what we want to return to now.”
Southern Research has 400 full-time employees, brings in $80 million in revenue and has an annual economic impact of $150 million. One of Carpenter’s first moves as CEO was to sell the Southern Research facility in Frederick, Maryland, to its strategic research partner Tonix Pharmaceuticals and shift these operations to Birmingham. The sale brought $17.5 million in capital investments in Birmingham, nearly 50 new jobs in Alabama with an average salary of $100,000 per year, and $45 million in recurring direct and indirect economic impact.
Before joining Southern Research, Carpenter served as director of Innovation and Economic Opportunity for the city of Birmingham.
“During the pandemic, about 85,000 workers in Jefferson County filed for unemployment,” Carpenter said. “I knew that, in my next role, I wanted to focus on quality jobs that provide sustainable family wages and benefits. What the economic development research tells us is that the development and maintenance of high-quality institutions is directly correlated with, and maybe even a driver of, economic growth.”
Carpenter is in talks with state and local leaders to support an $84 million new facility on the Southern Research campus in Southside that will double its BSL-3 lab space. The new facility could create nearly 200 new permanent scientific jobs, $26.2 million in new annual payroll, and $84.7 million in new spending and other economic output, Carpenter says. It also will expand the institute’s drug discovery and drug development partnerships with UAB in key areas of infectious diseases and cancer immunotherapy.
“We have a state-of-the-art facility where we can handle COVID-19 and any other highly pathogenic virus,” said Subash Das, DVM, Ph.D., who joined Southern Research as director of Infectious Disease Research in July 2021. “Many of our studies need BSL-3 containment labs. We have so much work contracted and could do more with more space.”
This is among several important hires at Southern Research made possible through the sale of the institute’s Frederick facility and whose expertise will allow Southern Research to aggressively expand research related to coronavirus and influenza.
- The joined Southern Research from Takeda Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he worked on vaccine development for dengue, Zika, chikungunya, hand foot and mouth disease, and other viruses, taking them “from basic research with the vaccine to the clinical trial stage where they could be marketed,” he said. In addition to coronavirus research, Das said, “we want to develop a universal flu vaccine, which would not need to be changed each year in response to the type of flu virus circulating in the population.”
- Senior scientist Kempaiah Rayavara, Ph.D., joined Southern Research from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, where he worked on a NIAID-funded project to establish small-animal models for screening medical countermeasures against SARS-CoV-2. He established a transgenic mouse model that is highly permissive and lethal to SARS-CoV-2 infection, which is crucial to testing potential vaccines and treatments for COVID-19. “Many vaccine candidates and therapeutics have been successfully tested in this mouse model, and the model will be used at Southern Research to screen more vaccines and therapeutics,” Rayavara said.
- Scientist Arathy Nair, Ph.D., also was drawn to Southern Research by the opportunity to move promising therapies into the clinic. Before coming to Birmingham, Nair studied avian viruses in India and then worked on tick-borne diseases and vaccines at Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine. “We were the first ones to develop vaccines for rickettsia and Rocky Mountain spotted fever,” Nair said. At Southern Research, she will direct preclinical testing for coronavirus and flu vaccine development.
Carpenter says strategic hires such as these create incredible potential for Southern Research, especially in concert with partners such as UAB.
“UAB leads more than $600 million in external research each year, and Southern Research does $40 million on the Southside campus,” he said. “That is a total of nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars in biological research within a 25-block radius. Extend that to 40 blocks and you have UAB Medicine, Children’s of Alabama, the VA Medical Center and St. Vincent’s, which see nearly 3.5 million patients per year. That concentrated patient care and research and development expertise means more effective clinical trials and opportunities to create many quality jobs.”
Joint ventures create powerhouse ROI
Southern Research partners with UAB in three main ways, Carpenter says: joint ventures, sponsored research collaborations and organic research collaborations.
The prototype joint venture is the Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance, which was launched in 2009 with the goal of translating innovative research in the UAB Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine labs into new treatments by leveraging the expertise in drug discovery and development at Southern Research. In the past 12 years, 38 projects have been initiated through the ADDA, and there are currently six drugs in the alliance pipeline, including potential treatments for cancer, Parkinson’s disease and diabetes.
“I believe we are the only major academic medical center with a partner specializing in drug discovery located just up the block,” said Richard Whitley, MD, Distinguished Professor at UAB. “Southern Research has high-throughput screening, medical chemists and structural biologists with extensive experience in working with the FDA to get drugs approved. They have a terrific history, and with Carpenter as CEO, the close partnership between UAB and Southern Research is poised to get stronger.”
The ADDA builds teams of specialists from UAB and Southern Research around each new potential drug project, with funding of $50,000 per year for two years. Just as in the pharmaceutical industry, the projects are held to strict timelines and regular go/no-go decisions at each significant testing milestone. Working with Southern Research allows UAB investigators to carry innovative ideas from their labs across the so-called valley of death, in which projects are too commercially focused to receive federal research funding but not yet promising enough to attract significant pharmaceutical or biotech investment. “UAB specializes in basic research and clinical trials, and Southern Research specializes in drug discovery and drug development,” said Stephanie Moore, Ph.D., associate director of the ADDA. “These partnerships make sense.” The translational research opportunities of the ADDA are a significant recruitment tool when UAB is recruiting promising investigators to Birmingham, Whitley adds.
Whitley has built on the ADDA model to successfully compete for major funding from the National Institutes of Health. In 2019, his Antiviral Drug Discovery and Development Center, was awarded a five-year, $37.5 million grant from NIAID to study and develop treatments for high-priority infections, including influenza, dengue, Zika — and the coronaviruses SARS and MERS. Initial testing that led to the approval of the antiviral drug remdesivir as a treatment for COVID-19 was carried out by the AD3C at Southern Research, Whitley says. Another UAB-Southern Research-sponsored research partnership is the UAB Research Center of Excellence in Arsenicals. It was awarded $18.9 million in 2018 to develop countermeasures against chemical warfare threats.
Through the efforts of UAB and its partners, philanthropic support, internal funding from Southern Research, and state funding, the ADDA has received about $15 million in investment. Thanks to that investment, UAB has received more than $100 million in grants and Southern Research has received more than $60 million, Carpenter says. “That’s a 20-to-1 return on investment to UAB and a 12-to-1 return on investment to Southern Research,” he said. “We can jointly combine efforts on these hugely competitive grants.”