Sitting at a NASA-like Provox control panel, Ann Weeks regulates the flow of 180 kilos of chemicals. She watches a complex schematic on a computer screen, monitoring reactor flows.
Ms. Weeks -- or O1 Control, as they call her at the Searle plant -- is an important part of the production process of Celebrex, a new wonder drug that has been prescribed to treat arthritis. More than two million prescriptions were written in the first three months after it went on sale.
Celebrex is one of the many products that Searle's parent-company Monsanto is making to find cures by sculpting the DNA of life.
In addition to making drugs, the company is engineering hormones that make a cow produce more milk. It is producing substances a thousand times sweeter than sugar, and it is genetically altering seeds so they are resistant to certain herbicides and diseases.
Someday, Monsanto officials say, they might even find a way to get plants to grow disease-fighting medicines without costly chemical processes.
"We're trying to be on the leading edge of life sciences technology," Monsanto's new local site manager Greg Kurdys said. He is replacing Bill DeFer, who was recently promoted to a Monsanto facility in Chicago.
Mr. Kurdys, a chemical engineer by training, has moved to Augusta from San Diego, Calif., where he worked at a plant that harvested kelp to make xanthan gums -- a product that thickens liquids.
Locally, Monsanto has two facilities, both off Columbia Nitrogen Road -- one makes the artificial sweetener NutraSweet and the other produces the world's supply of Celebrex ingredients.
The company is building a third facility locally to make bovine somatotropin, a synthetically produced hormone that increases milk production in cows. The hormone plant will be the second one like it in the world. The only other one is in Austria.
The new hormone facility is scheduled to open later this year and expected to cost more than $100 million and employ about 150 workers. The bovine somatotropin will be sold under the brand name Posilac -- a combination of two words: positive lactation.
A dynamic company
In the past year, Monsanto has been through tremendous changes.
Monsanto's chairman and chief executive officer Robert Shapiro came to Augusta more than a year ago to ceremoniously break ground for the new plant.
He called the moment a "giant step into the future."
He donned a black and white hard hat designed to look like a milk cow and scooped earth from the ground with a backhoe. He talked about the 21st century as "the century of biology," and an opportunity to help people live longer, healthier lives.
A few months later, Mr. Shapiro announced that the company was merging with American Home Products Corp., a much larger pharmaceutical company.
It was supposed to be a merger of equals co-chaired by Mr. Shapiro and American Home Products chief John R. Stafford. But American Home Products shareholders would have been the larger partner, owning 65 percent of the new company.
The merger would have created a $96 billion life sciences giant with $3 billion in annual profits. It would have been the largest drug merger ever.
In October, four months after the announcement, the deal was off.
One local stock broker called it a "shocker."
American Home Products made a two-paragraph announcement. It said that the merger cancellation was a mutual agreement. Monsanto's stock plunged more than $13 in one day, closing at $37 the day the announcement was made.
In November, Monsanto announced plans to cut as many as 2,500 jobs and sell some businesses to cut costs and raise about $5 billion to fund new acquisitions and products. The move was not unexpected.
The company started selling Celebrex early this year.
A life sciences strategy
Monsanto makes a wide variety of things that fit together under the heading life sciences -- products that sustain life.
A 98-year-old company, Monsanto was founded by John Francis Queeny in St. Louis. The pharmaceutical industry veteran named the company after his wife, whose maiden name was Monsanto.
In 1902, Monsanto made its first product: saccharin.
Later, the company added other products: caffeine, vanillin and aspirin. It was the largest U.S. producer of aspirin until the 1980s. Gradually, Monsanto expanded. It went public in 1927.
Monsanto came to Augusta when it purchased pharmaceutical company Searle. Searle owned about 135 acres in Augusta and began its drug operations locally in 1983. It built its NutraSweet facility in 1984.
By the 1990s Monsanto was a sprawling company with interests in several different businesses -- chemicals, agriculture, pharmaceuticals and food. That's when it began to develop a life science strategy, which used common technology to support separate businesses.
In 1997, Monsanto spun-off its applied chemistry division as a separate company, Solutia. Monsanto's name came off the phosphorus chemicals facility on Marvin Griffin Road.
In 1998, Monsanto bought three new seed companies -- Dekalb Genetics Corp., Plant Breediung International Cambridge Ltd. and the international seed business of Cargill Inc.
Mr. Shapiro outlined the strategy in his letter to shareholders in the 1998 annual report.
"This strategy is now reaching fruition," he wrote.
But all this science worries some groups who say that man has no business tinkering with Mother Nature. At one public gathering within the past year, an activist threw a pie in Mr. Shapiro's face.
And some environmental groups have objected to the company's attempts to boost cow's milk production with hormones. They fear that the company is taking science too far and may be doing more harm than good.
The company's future
Where the company is going with its life science strategy is not entirely clear. It is difficult to be on the leading edge of technology when the future is unknown.
Rumors are constantly circulating about which businesses Monsanto may divest. In December, analysts speculated that the company may sell off its NutraSweet artificial sweetener business and other parts of its nutrition and consumer products operations.
And the company is constantly looking at new products and technologies.
Searle scientists are developing a second generation of Celebrex.
Monsanto share prices dipped last week, after a rival to its Celebrex arthritis drug was approved by the FDA. Merck & Co. has developed a similar product, Vioxx.
Monsanto stock prices rebounded slightly, closing Friday at a share.
New products in the Monsanto pipeline include new painkillers; feed enzymes that boost animals nutrition; high-stearate soybean and canola oils; new herbicides and fungicides; insect-resistant tomatoes; a new sweetener.
Frank Witsil can be reached at (706) 823-3352.
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