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URHAM, N.C. — If you leave the American Tobacco Trail and drive east, past Dame’s Almost Famous Chicken & Waffles, Bullock’s Bar-B-Que, and the Truly Blessed Hair Salon, you will eventually come to the world’s largest research park.

This 16-square-mile stretch of Piedmont pine forest is home to about 200 companies that develop drugs and devices, run clinical trials, and otherwise push the boundaries of bioscience. GlaxoSmithKline, Merck & Co., and Biogen all have offices here, as do other industry leaders and startups.

This is Burr country.

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Burr is Senator Richard Burr, and this is the heart of the state’s pharmaceutical and biotech industry, which the veteran lawmaker has spent his career protecting. Now, with Burr facing a strong challenge from a former Democratic state representative, the industry is returning the favor, with pharmaceutical executives and lobbyists pouring money into his campaign.

“The industry feels very positive about Senator Burr, because he’s always taken a strong leadership role in policy that we’re interested in,” said Samuel Taylor, president of the state’s bioscience trade group, set in a sprawling brick structure in the rolling hills of The Research Triangle Park, as the area is known. “He’s done a stellar job.”

Map research triangle
The Research Triangle Park is the heart of North Carolina’s pharmaceutical and biotech industry. Alex Hogan/STAT, Google Earth

It’s a job that those here in The Research Triangle, and those in the nearby Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, badly want him to keep.

Burr, now in his second term following a decade in the House, has been uniquely positioned to press for faster regulatory approval of drugs and medical devices and lower taxes for the industry, and to generally be a booster for his state, which touts itself as the nation’s third-largest biotech cluster, behind Boston and Northern California.

His committee posts have given him oversight of both the Food and Drug Administration and Medicare and Medicaid. He is also the chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence.

“I’ve always found him to be somebody who is very thoughtful, smart, and works to learn the issues,” said Stephen Northrup, a partner at Rampy Northrup, a lobbying firm, who got to know Burr as GOP health policy director for the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

Polls, however, show Burr in a tight race with Deborah K. Ross, who served 10 years in the State House and who previously served as director of North Carolina’s American Civil Liberties Union.

That has not sat well with the drug industry.

“I told my pharmaceutical clients to get down there and help,” said one lobbyist who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak candidly.

Drug makers, medical device companies, related health care political action committees, and the companies’ lobbyists and employees, have so far given Burr more than $1.2 million this election cycle, making the industry by far his most generous supporter, according to a STAT analysis.

Nearly every firm has chipped in. GlaxoSmithKline, the largest company in The Research Triangle Park, gave $10,000. Abbott Laboratories donated $7,500 to the senator, and its spinoff, AbbVie, gave $9,000. The Bayer Corporation donated $7,000; Davita gave $8,000; Emergent Biosolutions gave $10,000; and Eli Lilly & Co. kicked in $8,000.

With the election getting closer, the pharmaceutical and medical-device industry has hosted a series of fundraisers in Washington for Burr. Lobbyists for Abbvie and Johnson & Johnson, for example, invited prospective donors to dine with the senator at an Italian trattoria. King & Spalding, a law firm with a large pharmaceutical practice, threw a fundraiser reception for him on the rooftop of its Pennsylvania Avenue quarters.

The Advanced Medical Technology Association, which represents the majority of the nation’s medical technology companies, hosted two events for Burr, who has pushed for the repeal of the medical device excise tax.

Some companies have contributed $10,000 to Burr’s campaign, then donated an addition $10,000 to his leadership PAC.

That kind of support, industry insiders say, reflects the commitment that Burr has made to them over the years.

Supporters point to Burr’s sponsorship of the FDA Modernization Act of 1997, which cut the agency’s review time for new drug approvals and called for increased patient access to experimental drugs and medical devices. That measure was approved while Burr was in the House.

In the Senate, he was a driving force in creation of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), a federal office that serves as a kind of government venture capital arm for fighting bioterrorism. BARDA develops and buys vaccines, drug therapies, and diagnostic tools for public health threats, such as anthrax, and possible pandemics.

Northrup, who worked on the legislation, said Burr deserves more credit for it than he’s usually given.

“There would not be a BARDA today if it was not for the work that Senator Burr did,” Northrup said. “That was his first major accomplishment in the Senate, in his first two years.”

Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for Burr, said the senator continues to push for funding for BARDA and the National Institutes of Health. Asked about the drug industry’s support, he noted that Ross’s campaign coffers have been filled by liberal Democratic groups and labor unions, which he said were out of step with North Carolina values.

Ross’s campaign declined to comment on Burr’s industry support, but throughout the campaign has stressed his support from health insurers.

NC Senate Race
Senator Richard Burr and Democratic challenger Deborah K. Ross participate in a debate in Research Triangle Park, N.C., earlier this month. Gerry Broome/AP

“North Carolina voters know better than to trust the insurance industry’s hand-picked candidate to look after their Medicare,” said Cole Leiter, Ross’s press secretary.

Burr’s supporters have expressed concern that their candidate could be dragged down by Donald Trump. Burr has stood by Trump, calling for forgiveness after the surfacing of comments in which the Republican candidate suggested sexually assaulting women.

Still, here in the biotech center, voters may be more concerned with maintaining North Carolina’s newly strong economy — and with having a friend in the Senate — than with presidential politics.

The North Carolina Biosciences Organization is among the groups here supporting Burr, although unofficially. When a reporter came by for a visit, the head of the group, Samuel Taylor, said he had just called the Burr camp, seeking directions on what he might say in the interview.

The campaign didn’t call back in time, but Taylor knew how he wanted to put it: “It’s important to have a member of Congress who understands the FDA, and has the respect of the FDA,” he said, “and I think that Senator Burr meets both of those criteria.”

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  • Actually, many of us who toil in the pharma and CRO industries would love to see Burr ousted. While he may be in bed with big pharma, he isn’t doing much for North Carolinians. His personal wealth has increased 500% since he’s been in the Senate (look it up), and he profits personally from numerous manufacturing and corporate entities. Ross is doing so well precisely because the professionals in this area know she is better for us and our families. The drug industry isn’t going anywhere.

  • Thanks for this article. I hate to say it, but Sen. Burr has about 99 colleagues in the same boat, and in the House as well. Patient safety vs. Industry benefit is an equal opportunity, bipartisan problem. This is why patients who are not in the fat and happy part of the Bell Curve keep getting harmed by medical devices such as Essure, Transvaginal Mesh, Morcellators, etc., and by dental devices such as mercury dental amalgam, and also creamed by rising prices. Nearly all of Congress is on the take. Even Bernie will not stand up to the dental industry. Rep. Louise Slaughter is the only one I know of who is not on the take. When someone asked her at a Panel at the Radcliffe Institute how she handled Pharma and Device lobbyists, she replied, “Honey, they don’t waste their time.” There are a couple of bills filed by Rep. Mike Fitzgerald to protect patients from medical device harm. They have a couple of sponsors, but not nearly enough.

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