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WTF: What Exactly is Bioscience?

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: We just had to ask...


Published October 13, 2010 at 12:26 p.m.


For many people, the term “bioscience” might conjure images of weirdo experiments such as the so-called “earmouse,” a lab rodent with what looked like a human ear growing from its back.

The “ear” was actually grown from cow cartilage by Dr. Charles Vacanti in a University of Massachusetts laboratory and fashioned to resemble an ear. No human tissue was used, and the rodent’s hearing was not improved. But scientists saw promise in the experiment for human transplants, while animal-rights and antigenetics groups saw danger.

Vermont has a small but thriving bioscience industry, with companies making a range of medical devices and products. Earmice are not among them.

The Vermont Biosciences Alliance has a membership of 90 companies, which in turn have a total of 1100 employees. The group’s president, University of Vermont School of Business Administration lecturer Bret Golann, says there’s no strict business definition of “bioscience” other than that a company’s work must involve “a biological process.”

Using that definition, Vermont bioscience runs the gamut from Winooski’s high-tech medical-device maker BioTek Instruments to Moonshine Mushrooms, an organic farm in Chester that cultivates shiitake mushrooms using brewery grain from Wolaver’s beer made at Otter Creek Brewing in Middlebury.

“He’s a chemical engineer who found ways to speed up the productivity and growth cycle of gourmet mushrooms and, apparently, improve the quality of them,” Golann says of Moonshine’s Edward Kiegle. “We’re not just about medicine by any stretch of the imagination. We take a very broad view of bioscience.”

’Shrooms aside, a more typical example of Vermont’s bioscience biz is Chroma Technology Corp. in Rockingham, which makes optical filters for microscopes that allow scientists to examine tissue closely for signs of cancer or other disease. Chroma was started by Paul Millman, who came to Vermont after college seeking “hippies” and ended up founding a company that now employs 90 in Rockingham, Burlington and Germany.

What else do bioscience firms make? Products such as software applications that work with microscopes to map neuron passages in the brain; and diagnostic devices that help prevent heart attack, stroke and complications from diabetes, according to Golann. Also under the bioscience umbrella: companies that specialize in water testing and renewable energy, such as methane-fueled “cow power.”

If Vermont has any labs that handle dangerous pathogens or grow futuristic life-forms in Petri dishes, “nobody’s told me,” Golann says. “As far as I know, there’s no super-secret biological research being done.”

Bill Church, president of Green Mountain Antibodies in Burlington’s Chace Mill, offers another definition of bioscience: “the commercialization of life processes.”

For Church’s company, that means using a technology called cell fusion to make “small factories” that produce monoclonal antibodies, used in detecting everything from pregnancy to prostate cancer. Right now, Green Mountain Antibodies is working on developing “dipsticks” that will test for MRSA (an antibiotic-resistant staphylococcus infection) in hospital patients and toxicity in algae blooms.

Church notes that beer brewing and bread baking — both catalyzed by yeast — qualify as bioscience. So does livestock farming.

“Fermentation is a biological process,” says Church. “A cow is a biotechnology unit. Something goes in one end, [and] you take a product — milk — out the other end.”

“Biotechnology,” or biotech, is a term you hear less often these days. Bioscience has become the industry’s preferred term, a switch that Church says was by design.

“We wanted to get beyond the perception that we’re making mutant hot dogs — Frankenfood,” he explains. “Biotech” is often associated with genetic engineering, drug companies and megacorporations such as Monsanto. Sensational experiments like Dr. Vacanti’s earmouse only serve to solidify that perception. The industry adopted “bioscience” to give its work “a more positive spin,” Church says.

Whatever you call it, the industry is booming in Vermont. Jobs are growing at seven times the state average — so fast that companies are having trouble finding qualified employees, Golann says. And the jobs generally pay well.

While some firms, such as Green Mountain Antibodies, were spun off from the work of faculty at UVM or other colleges, the 90 firms in the Biosciences Alliance aren’t clustered around academic institutions. They’re spread across the state — in St. Johnsbury, Brattleboro, St. Albans and elsewhere, Golann notes.

In June, the Biosciences Alliance teamed up with the Vermont Technology Council to create an internship that has already placed nine high school and college students in Vermont bioscience firms. The alliance, which launched a new website on October 11, has a goal of working with educators to beef up math and science studies in public schools.

Turns out, geeks are good for us.

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