Virginia Tech Magazine
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Biotech pioneer


Charles Hamner '56

For Charles Hamner (animal husbandry '56), economic development and academic research go hand in hand. In a career that spans three decades, Hamner and his deft touch for growth have guided the state of North Carolina toward a thriving biotech industry.

Since the 1980s, Hamner has played a key role in making North Carolina a hotbed for biotechnologies, which has fueled major economic growth in the state. "For the past 15 years, we've been forming new companies and creating new technologies and creating jobs. We've created [more than] 50,000 jobs over the last 10 years in North Carolina," said Hamner of his work and the partnerships he has helped to create. As president and CEO of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center and as namesake and chair of the board for The Hamner Institutes for Health Sciences, Hamner has worked to unite universities, state government, and industry to build a stronger biotech sector.

Common thread

The push to establish North Carolina as a leader in the biotech industry heated up in 1981, when the state general assembly created the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. Joining the organization in 1988, Hamner sought to convince state leaders biotechnology was important to the future. No small undertaking, his campaign had several carefully planned components, all with one goal.

The center began by setting up an eminent scholar program, helping state universities to hire the world's best life-sciences professionals. "You have to have innovative, leading-edge, first-class research personnel. Then they make discoveries and create technologies," said Hamner.

For the next step, Hamner convinced state leaders to provide funds for universities to begin major new discovery programs. The investment would be money well spent, Hamner promised, because those universities and top-notch researchers would go out and secure grant money from such places as the National Institutes of Health. His plan worked. The center gave $70 million to the universities; the professors won a total of $850 million in funding.

Hamner's plan had a far-reaching vision, encompassing early-education programs about life-sciences careers for students in middle and high school and a public-awareness campaign explaining to taxpayers why biotechnology funding would stimulate job growth and enhance the quality of life for people across the state. The center also lent money to startup companies to create business plans so they could then seek support from venture capitalists.

The process sounds complex and risky, but Hamner had the foresight to sow the seeds for the short- and long-term growth of North Carolina's biotechnology industry. "The way it worked is exactly how we planned it," said Hamner.

As both a high school and undergraduate student, Bill Huckle, now an associate professor of biomedical science at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, did lab research with Hamner. Huckle said that Hamner played a large role in building a stronger industry from the framework already in place. "That work was under way long before he got [to North Carolina]—Research Triangle Park started in the late '50s and by the '80s had already attracted major pharmaceutical companies to set up shop—but certainly he was instrumental in making it possible for startup companies to prosper there."
The Hamner Institutes for Health Sciences, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina >
The Hamner Institutes for Health Sciences   .   Research Triangle Park, North Carolina
Hamner said leverging biotechnology for economic growth boils down to one thing: translational research, or taking research from the theoretical stage to a fully developed product or technology that can enhance people's lives. "It's kind of popular now for universities to talk about translating their research and discoveries into some kind of product, but 20 years ago, people didn't understand that that's what needed to be done," recalled Hamner.

The pioneer of biotech understands the model well. So well, in fact, that Hamner has been awarded three honorary doctoral degrees, including one from the University of Ulster in North Ireland, which recognized his work recruiting pharmaceutical companies to establish manufacturing facilities in the region.

"I think Virginia Tech is fortunate to count [Hamner] as an alumnus," said Huckle. "He was also instrumental in building the case for the state of Virginia to have a veterinary school and to locate [it in Blacksburg]. He's been an advocate for Virginia Tech beyond being an illustrious alumnus." Huckle also noted Hamner's "sterling" career at the University of Virginia, where he served as a professor and later as associate vice president for health affairs at the university's medical center.

Despite his retirement in 2002, Hamner emerged in 2006 to help lead The Hamner Institutes for Health Sciences, an organization established in 1975 as the Chemical Institute for Industrial Toxicology and renamed in his honor. There, he has guided the institute's shift from chemical research to product development with an emphasis on safety assessments of potential products. The organization has worked on technologies that range from chemical additives to vaccines and treatments for infectious and metabolic diseases in animals and humans.

Country roads

The biotech industry's apex may seem a far cry from Hamner's rural roots in Schuyler, Va., famed birthplace of the Waltons. In fact, Hamner's connection to the series goes beyond a shared hometown. His cousin, Earl Hamner Jr., created "The Waltons."

"The way they laid that out on TV was exactly the way we were born and raised. Earl Jr. wrote it about his family, not mine, but I was raised right down the road, so we all came from the same environment," recalled Hamner.

Hamner's farm-country upbringing, in fact, is what led to his decision to study animal sciences. When Hamner interviewed at Virginia Tech, the interviewer asked him what he wanted to study. "I said, 'I don't have any idea.' The man said, 'Since you were born and raised on a farm, why don't you major in animal husbandry?'" Once Hamner arrived at Tech, he took advantage of the university's offerings, discovering his own inclination toward math, chemistry, and biology.

"Virginia Tech was a wonderful experience. My professors recognized that I came out of a rural educational setting and that I needed a huge amount of help. They were all patient and kind and worked with me very, very hard in my first two years until I caught up with people from urban schools," said Hamner. His Virginia Tech professors taught him the fundamentals he needed to excel in higher education, and the lessons paid off. He went to school for 10 more years, earning from the University of Georgia a master's in organic chemistry, a Ph.D. in biochemistry, and a doctorate in veterinary medicine.

Those academic roots still play a role in Hamner's life today, in the form of a 1-acre vegetable garden where he grows 26 vegetable varieties interspersed with the bright hues of roses, dahlias, zinnias, and marigolds. He reflects fondly on his time at Virginia Tech and the professors who nurtured his budding talents.

"If I hadn't [received] the kind and helpful instruction from my basic teachers my first two years at Virginia Tech, I wouldn't have had the background I needed to move on through the higher education system," said Hamner. The investment Virginia Tech made in the young student paved the way for a decades-long career that continues well into retirement, as Hamner still tends a perennially blossoming biotechnology industry in North Carolina.


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Spring 2011
The Hamner Institutes for Health Sciences >
Leverging biotechnology for economic growth boils down to one thing: translational research, or taking research from the theoretical stage to a fully developed product or technology that can enhance people’s lives.