Clinical drug trials — a growth industry in Ga.

Patients with a common form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma will soon be involved in a clinical trial at three sites in Georgia.

They’ll be part of a large trial by the manufacturer Roche/Genentech, testing a promising new drug to treat the disease, which is a form of cancer.

The trial is one example of the growing biopharmaceutical research presence in Georgia.

Biopharmaceutical companies are conducting or have conducted more than 3,600 clinical trials of new drugs in the state, according to a new report from PhRMA, a trade group for the brand-name pharmaceutical industry.

About half of those trials have targeted six major diseases: asthma, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, mental illness and stroke.

Universities, hospitals and research centers across the state have participated in the trials. The non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma drug trial is taking place in Macon and Columbus, and will soon come to Rome and perhaps Atlanta.

Seeking Georgia sites for the clinical trial, Roche/Genentech approached Georgia CORE, a collaboration of clinicians, scientists, educators and others that seeks to improve the quality of cancer care in the state through research.

One advantage of such trials is that they help give Georgia patients access to cutting-edge therapies, says Dr. Frederick Schnell, medical director of Georgia CORE.

Georgia is in the middle of the pack among states in the number of biopharmaceutical clinical trials, behind states such as California, Florida, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, says Jeff Trewhitt, a PhRMA spokesman.

But Georgia has the infrastructure for more growth, he says. “Georgia has done a good job in the last 10 years in encouraging this development with tax breaks and incentives for these companies.’’

Despite the state’s economic troubles in recent years, bioscience employment has remained steady in Georgia, according to a recent University of Georgia report. It showed the life sciences industry (which includes medical device makers) and university research, along with the CDC, have a $23 billion annual economic impact on the state, employing more than 105,000 people.

It’s an industry every state covets because of its high-paying jobs and economic impact.

Among the biopharmaceutical clinical trials taking place in the state is one occurring at the AIDS Research Consortium of Atlanta. It’s the first therapeutic trial to use an HIV vaccine candidate from GeoVax Labs, a company based in Atlanta.

Although the GeoVax vaccines are currently being studied for HIV prevention, this is the first study using the same products to treat people who already have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Another big player in drug research here is Quintiles, a North Carolina-based company. Its largest U.S. central lab facility is in Marietta.

The facility, which employs 400 people, provides clinical testing services and support for the development of drug products.

With this lab, Quintiles is supporting a number of trials being conducted in Georgia, says John Spegele, a company vice president, who said the incentives and Atlanta infrastructure helped persuade the firm to choose the Marietta site.

Many of the new pharmaceuticals under development are so-called biologic drugs, which constitute a growth area for the industry, PhRMA’s Trewhitt says. Biologics are complex mixtures made from living organisms. Unlike other drugs, they are not chemically synthesized. Many are currently very expensive for patients. The industry points to the high research and development costs for these medications.

Biologic technology, Trewhitt says, ‘‘has a strong potential to be more effective in providing patient care.’’

The goal of the PhRMA report is to help convince state legislators and policymakers of the importance and economic impact of the biopharmaceutical industry.

Georgia’s steady growth in this area should continue with the help of incentives, Trewhitt says.

Such inducements came into play earlier this year when pharmaceutical company Osmotica decided to locate a research and manufacturing facility in Marietta. The company will create 156 jobs there.

Osmotica received nearly $2 million in state and local incentives to locate the site in Marietta.

In announcing the company’s decision, Gov. Nathan Deal called the tax incentives a good investment.

“In fact, in talking with one of the leading economists in our state, he says that we are very well positioned on most of the major fronts,” Deal said in a Marietta Daily Journal article.