By Chuck Tanowitz
Working with recombinant DNA — the technology used in making insulin and other biologic drugs — is common in the biotech and pharmaceutical world. So much so, that it’s now more difficult to find a lab that doesn’t work in rDNA than finding one that does.
Last year, the Town of Needham obtained a Gold BioReady rating from the state, certifying that it has biotech and life sciences-friendly zoning (a streamlined permitting process) and has robust infrastructure in place.
Companies looking for lab space use those rankings to help guide their decisions about where to locate when looking for new space. Yet the City of Newton only holds a Bronze Rating from the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council (MassBio), the lowest ranking available.
Today, a company looking to build a lab in Newton that works with rDNA must first obtain a special permit from the city council, an added a layer of complication to an already lengthy and involved process.
The 2016 economic development study from the N-Squared Innovation District by Camoin Associates specifically recommended biotech as a strong area for growth. Making it easier to open a biotech in Newton could greatly enhance the city’s ability to attract companies to Wells Avenue and other parts of the city. What’s more, if Newton is going to be competitive and cooperative with neighboring communities like Needham, Waltham, Cambridge and Watertown, it must match those municipalizes Gold and Platinum status.
That’s why the Warren Administration, along with the Newton Biosafety Committee, went before the Zoning and Planning Committee of the City Council in May to ask that this block be removed, thereby opening the door to helping the city achieve a Silver or even a Gold ranking.
“[rDNA is] the single most powerful and basic tool in modern biology,” Carl Cohen, a member of the Newton Biosafety Committee told the city councilors.
“It’s hard to find a modern bio lab that doesn’t have rDNA as part of its usages,” said Biosafety Committee member Bill Dietrich.
The change requested by Mayor Warren’s Planning Department would simplify the process, enabling the commissioner of health and human services to issue a permit after gaining approval from the Newton Biosafety Committee. That committee already conducts site visits annually and reviews all permitted facilities on everything from safety to waste disposal to insurance. It’s staffed by three experts in the field.
“We need to streamline our process to be business-friendly,” said Ward 8 City Councilor Rick Lipof.
James Freas, deputy director of the department of planning and development, told councilors on the ZAP committee that he believes once the city removes the special permit process it can easily move to Silver and then to Gold, thanks to the fact that the city is already home to several rDNA labs.
One of the key criteria for moving from Silver to Gold is that a city already have pre-approved labs operating within its borders. Currently, Newton-based Karyopharm and Siam Lab have rDNA facilities, and the Life Time Center, formerly the Atrium Mall, has already been pre-approved for such facilities.
A public hearing on the change will be held on June 12 at Newton City Hall.