Friday, October 26, 2007

San Diego Wildfires and the Biotech Business

San Diego is one of the global centers for stem cell research. This week it was also the scene of disastrous wildfires that destroyed 2,000 homes and left $1 billion damage.

The fires meant personal tragedies for some, closures of businesses and loss of some research. The fires also served notice once again to businesses and researchers of the impact that natural disasters can suddenly have and the importance of emergency planning, especially in Southern California which is also in an earthquake zone.

Stem cell research and businesses are just one component of a large life science industry in the San Diego -- one that encompasses 500 firms and 36,000 employees.

In an effort to provide a partial view of the fire's impact, The California Stem Cell Report queried a handful of folks in the stem cell business in fire area.

In the case of Richard Murphy, interim president of the California stem cell agency, he was in San Francisco working as the fire advanced towards his home in Rancho Santa Fe. Murphy said the home was being rented while he worked in Northern California, and reported on Thursday that the house was safe.

Researcher Jeanne Loring of the Burnham Institute in La Jolla was in Maine at a stem cell meeting. She said via email that her house in Del Mar had been on the mandatory evacuation list but that it was safe. "I took a break from following the fires on the Internet to give a seminar to a class of a human ESC training course here in Bar Harbor."

She said that at one point both Burnham and neighboring Scripps were closed, but power remained on and the cell banks were okay. Salk and UC San Diego were also partially or completely closed at times.

Loring continued,
"Some experiments were lost just because the researchers were evacuated. Some people who were evacuated were staying at the labs. I offered my office couch, but I don't know if anyone took me up on it....One unexpected benefit was that the NIH gave grant applicants a grace period. We have a few more days to work on one stem cell grant from the Burnham that was due on Tuesday!"
Floyd Bloom, a member of the CIRM Oversight Committee and executive director for science communications at Scripps, said, "I've been hunkering down, trying to keep my mind off the tragedies by working."

Jay Blankenbeckler, a biotech manager at Invitrogen in Carlsbad in northern San Diego County, awoke early one morning in his Rancho Bernardo home to find high winds and approaching blazes. Time magazine quoted him as saying that mature palm trees in his yard were bent over.

He said,
"They were doing this swirling thing. My palm trees, 35 to 45 feet of palm tree, almost looked like a swizzle stick in a drink, moving around in a big circle."
He and his family evacuated, and at last report his home was still okay.

Bioworld Today reported that at one point half of the staff of BIOCOM, the Southern California industry association, was evacuated from their homes. The online publication reported that many biotech businesses had to close during the fire.

Invitrogen at one point sent most workers home from its main production facility. But it said shipments won't be affected, according to an article by Mike Nagle on It has another distribution site in Maryland.

Nagle also reported that some biotech businesses at one point were in risk of losing buildings. He said,
"This poses several problems, not least of which is how to care for any animals kept at the facility and where to take them should they need to be evacuated. A further problem is what to with the, often very expensive, compounds used at each facility, many of which require special storage conditions, or are still being used in active experiments or haven't yet been fully analyzed.

"Notwithstanding the fact that much of these materials may intrinsically be commercially sensitive, this is where nearby but not at risk life sciences companies come into the equation, which obviously have the facilities to look after both research animals and chemicals.

"Of course, this is ignoring the more simple fact that a fire at a facility that contains vast amounts of chemicals could be an environmental disaster. However, the companies in the area will, of course, have made contingency plans for emergencies such as this - especially since this is not the first time California has been devastated by wildfires: four years ago, wildfires swept through Southern California, killing over 20 people."
Nagle said that the daily production of the life sciences companies in San Diego runs about $23 million a day.

Here is a link to a regularly updated map by the San Diego Union-Tribune of the fire zones in San Diego. Sphere: Related Content

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