Officials await OK to break ground on United Therapeutics project

Jun. 22, 2014 @ 06:05 PM

United Therapeutics Corp. has plans readied for a new research lab facility in the Research Triangle Park that’s designed to support research into the use of pig lungs for human transplant.

But Avi Halpert, vice president of real estate for the Maryland-based company, said he’s waiting on the word from top company executives on when construction can begin. In a previous interview, a company leader said construction on the new research facility was targeted to run from 2015 to 2017.
“We’re hoping the science and all the research and development that we’re working on all over the United States and even down here; we hope that it’ll ultimately allow us to move forward with the construction of an R&D facility on-site,” Halpert said. “There’s a few milestones in the laboratory that need to occur.”
United Therapeutics is dedicated to developing treatments – and a cure -- for pulmonary arterial hypertension, which is characterized by high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs.
On 132 acres of land bought from GlaxoSmithKline in 2012 for $17.5 million, United Therapeutics planned to renovate a portion of an iconic building known as the Elion-Hitchings Building as well as to build a new research facility. The purchase also included former GSK buildings referred to as the South, and South expansion.
The tract purchased from GlaxoSmithKline in 2012 was contiguous to United Therapeutics' existing facilities in the park.
On a tour of the site last week, Halpert showed that the South and South expansion buildings’ renovation is complete.
One of buildings is being used for office space, and the other is being used for office as well as lab space, he said.
They also have space for future growth and future projects.
Halpert pointed to bicycles parked outside one of the two buildings that employees can use to ride between buildings.
“We want to grow here, in Research Triangle Park, and to be able to cut through a property. To have continuous and abutting sites sort of creates that campus atmosphere,” Halpert said. “If we were all hodge-podged all over the place, it just wouldn’t have that same flavor and campus environment.”
He also said demolition on the site is complete for portions of the Elion-Hitchings Building the company did not plan to keep.
About 150,000 square feet of the building remains; they demolished about 400,000 square feet.
The building was designed by architect Paul Rudolph on a 22.5-degree slant, and was filmed for the 1983 science fiction film "Brainstorm."
Halpert said the company discussed its demolition plan with neighbors and other stakeholders. It kept the most architecturally significant portion of the building, he said, that’s also visible from nearby roads.
Demolition took about six months, according to an email from Thomas Kaufman, corporate real estate coordinator for United Therapeutics. Seventy-eight percent of the demolished material was recycled, including 38,100 tons of concrete, 7,683 tons of steel, and 215 tons of stainless steel and copper.
“It was an incredible amount of material that came in that building,” Halpert said. “GSK left it fully furnished. There were chairs and laboratory fume hoods – you could have back-filled it with a company just with people and you could have got it going.”
In addition to renovating a portion of the building, the company also plans to build a new lab facility. Kaufman said in an email that the Elion-Hitchings renovation is not necessarily tied to the construction of that facility. The renovation and construction work may occur at the same time, or it may happen in a multi-phased process, he said.
The company’s plans for the new research facility, which will be about 250,000 square feet, show it will resemble a star when viewed from overhead.
The design would allow scientists to keep different types of pigs for engineering lung tissues and transplantation research. It will have a central hub to simplify delivery of food and water to the animals.
The company has plans to work on engineered lungs and lung tissues that could be transplanted into patients with pulmonary arterial hypertension or other lung diseases.
In 2011, the company acquired Revivicor in Virginia, which focused on genetically engineered pigs to provide, among other things, diabetes treatment and organs and tissues for use in transplant surgery known as "xenografts."
Andy Fisher, a spokesman for United Therapeutics, confirmed that the company is looking to build a new designated pathogen-free research facility in the RTP for pig lung research, but also said that the company has other non-xeno-regenerative tissue and organ research programs that would not be located in that facility.
The company doesn’t have a definitive timeline for the project, Fisher said. He did say that the designated pathogen-free facility and the renovation of the Elion-Hitchings Building will each take about 24 months to build or renovate. He said the company hasn’t shared the specific milestones that need to be met to move forward.
While construction and renovation work has not yet begun, the company is launching work on a solar field on the property.
Halpert said United Therapeutics has been accepting shipments of solar panels for the solar field, which is estimated to cost more than $7.5 million. In total, they plan to have 14,124 solar panels in an array that would produce 4 megawatts of power.
“This solar field, all 14,124 panels, will be connected to the grid at the end of this year,” Halpert said.