Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Alza invests another $100 million in Vacaville site

Alza invests $100 million in Vacaville site

By Matthew Bunk

VACAVILLE - The equipment to make pharmaceuticals tends to be very expensive. Nobody knows that better than Alza Corp.'s Joe Nuzzolese.Nuzzolese oversees drug manufacturing at Alza's Vacaville plant. Already one of the city's largest employers, Alza is adding hundreds of associates to its staff in Vacaville. But the Johnson & Johnson subsidiary isn't just investing in manpower.

It's also spending $100 million on equipment and facility improvements to increase production capacity for drugs such as Nicoderm CQ, which helps smokers drop the habit, and Concerta for Attention Deficit Disorder - as well as to ramp up for anticipated production of a new drug, a pain killer called Ionsys. "We'll be making a significant investment in this facility in the next two to three years," Nuzzolese said. "Most of it for a new product we're bringing on the market."Though Nuzzolese was specifically referring to Ionsys, it's not the only new drug Alza hopes to manufacture at the Vacaville plant. He said several other pharmaceuticals winding their way through the company's pipeline will likely be made at the site, already one of Alza's most crucial properties.

"From a pharmaceutical standpoint, it's one of Johnson & Johnson's largest facilities worldwide," he said. "This facility is critical to develop and commercialize pharmaceutical products."The ongoing plant upgrade is one of the biggest investments in Vacaville since Alza first began operating here in 1993, Nuzzolese said.

No research and development happens at the plant - all of the early stage work takes place at other Alza sites across the Bay Area - but it handles much of the manufacturing load once the products make it through the Food and Drug Administration's lengthy approval process.

As for Ionsys, no one at Alza is ready to guess when it might hit the market. A new drug application was submitted to the FDA in 2003, which suggests it could be a couple of years away from full production. But Alza is getting ready, nonetheless.

Roughly half of the money earmarked for improving the Vacaville facility will go toward equipment, Nuzzolese said. The other half will be spent on converting warehouse space to manufacturing space.

Ionsys delivers pain medication through a push-button patch attached to a patient's arm. The delivery system, called E-trans, uses electricity to dose a patient without breaking the skin and works as an alternative to the push-pull method of intravenous pumps. Both Ionsys and E-Trans would be manufactured in Vacaville, Nuzzolese said. "Ionsys is the focus," Nuzzolese said. "It's seen as a very significant product in coming years."We will also increase capacity for other products that we can't get into specifically."

Alza employs 1,300 people at its research and development facilities in the Bay Area. It recently hired about 150 workers, bringing its total in Vacaville to roughly 1,000. Also, it's advertising to fill another 100 positions.

In the next few years, the company could rival another pharmaceutical manufacturer, Genentech, to become the largest non-government employer in Vacaville. Genentech, likewise, has begun work to expand its Vacaville plant and expects to have as many as 1,100 employees here by 2008.

Vacaville economic development officials have made it clear they want to attract companies such as Genentech and Alza to the city. Growing its life science cluster was outlined as a priority in recent economic development strategy reports.

It seems to be working. Nuzzolese, who moved to Solano County from New Jersey eight months ago, said Vacaville is an accommodating place for biotech firms."It's been very easy to integrate into this community," he said.

Reach Matthew Bunk at 425-4646 Ext. 267 or mbunk@dailyrepublic.net.

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