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From strawberries to vaccines, Albany freeze-drying company adapts

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Imagine a world where all vaccines could be administered orally. No needles, no vials, no refrigeration.

A new biopharma development and clinical facility in Albany at a longtime business, Oregon Freeze Dry at 525 25th Ave. SW, aims to achieve that vision through a process called lyophilization.

Also known as freeze-drying, lyophilization refers to a solid skipping the liquid phase and turning straight into a vapor. It does this by manipulating the pressure and temperature within a clean room, officials said. As the frozen liquid changes, the moisture is pulled out of the product without ruining the cell structure.

The ribbon cutting at the 101 year old Riverside Community Hall on Sunday, August 7.

“We try to stimulate the atmosphere of a space station in the chamber,” Senior Vice President Jeni Billups said. “The process is used to preserve the integrity of the structure while making it shelf-stable.”

The $7.5 million facility saw its grand opening last month. It will apply freeze-drying technology to the development of syringe-free medication for cell and gene therapies, microbial therapeutics and immunotherapy. The results would be used to treat cancerous tumors, cardiovascular diseases and genetic disorders, among others.

“The pharmaceutical industry is shifting toward less-invasive treatments that will leverage or enhance the natural capabilities of the human body,” Billups said. “It’s exciting to think about pharmaceuticals using the human body to help heal itself.”

The facility is certified at biosafety Level 2 — used to study moderate-risk infectious agents or toxins that pose a moderate danger if accidentally inhaled, swallowed, or exposed to the skin — and ISO Level 5, meaning it uses ultra-clean cleanrooms. Unlike Oregon Freeze Dry's current commercial facility, there’s an extra-high level of cleanliness and an ability to handle higher risk material, CEO Joe Folds said.

Oregon Freeze Dry first laid biopharma foundations in Albany in the early 1990s. Long before pharmaceutical applications, the business had been freeze-drying local Oregon strawberries for cereals since the 1960s.

A strategic review in the early 2000s identified the pharmaceutical industry as a candidate for growth, and the company changed its focus.

“This new facility brings significant capabilities to build off decades of experience with freeze-drying,” Folds said. “It’s been around for a long time, and the classification of products is changing.”

One of the multiple benefits of freeze-drying involves bypassing “the cold-chain,” a supply network in which medicine relies on low temperatures from production to distribution. If not refrigerated, condensation can form and damage the vials.

While it was difficult to distribute coronavirus vaccines during the pandemic due to this reason, it won’t be a problem with freeze-dried products, Folds said.

“With freeze-drying, you can stabilize and handle a product at room temperature,” he said. “It makes the whole supply chain significantly better. The demand for freeze-drying in pharmaceuticals will continue to grow.”

The company experienced its own coronavirus challenges, when it experienced several COVID-19 outbreaks. Months before the pandemic, with sales of freeze-dried foods waning, the company had at least two rounds of layoffs, even as it planned for expansion at the Albany headquarters.

Editor's note: This article has been edited to clarify the company's origins.

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Kayla Nguyen is a Reporting Intern for the Albany Democrat-Herald. She will be a senior journalism student at the University of Oregon in the fall. Find her via Twitter @kaylaa_ngu.

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