Opening of the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult Manufacturing Centre in Stevenage
Posted on 03/05/2018
It was about 24 years ago when I started my PhD. A relatively new field, gene therapy, was gaining a lot of attention and I was delighted to be offered a studentship to work towards a PhD in Professor Farzin Farzaneh’s lab at King’s in London. Nowadays the lab has one of the highest outputs of GMP viral vectors in the field, and at the time I was using such vectors to carry out in vitro work towards ovarian cancer gene therapy. Understandably, in those early days there was a lot of research going on with less focus on preparing for commercially viable products. Someone remarked at the time that “a lot of mice were cured of their cancers”.
As it happened, not many labs had animal models for ovarian cancer, so my next logical move was to go to a lab that did. Hence, I started post-doc work in Clermont-Ferrand, France in the Centre Jean Perrin where they had rat and mouse models of ovarian cancer. The excitement continued, but the question of “how are we going to get this to patients?” was getting stronger in my head.
This prompted my next move to Professor Nigel Slater’s lab, which was starting a project on bioprocessing of retroviral vectors in collaboration with large pharma gene therapy pioneer GlaxoSmithKline. The exposure to biopharma made me decide to have a full-time taste of it. This started with a couple of small biotech companies: Iceni BioDiscovery followed by Onyvax, where I worked under Stephen Ward, the current COO of the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult. They were cell therapy companies but my gene therapy skills came in handy as both cell therapy approaches required gene transfer. Both companies failed amidst waning enthusiasm for both cell and gene therapies, due to lack of clinical, let alone commercial success.
My career continued in the relative safety of Cambridge Antibody Technology, later acquired by AstraZeneca and merged with and renamed to MedImmune. Antibodies were still exciting, and also had a proven track record clinically and commercially. I worked in bioprocessing for 10 years and saw continuous improvement in many areas of antibody discovery and development, as well as lots of new molecules based on antibodies, but sufficiently different to pose new challenges, including ADCs and biospecifics .
Towards the end of my time with MedImmune, it was clear that both gene and cell therapies had regained momentum, with clinical success resulting in regulatory approvals.
I was therefore delighted to be invited to the opening of the Manufacturing Centre of the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult in Stevenage on the 23rd of April 2018. A fantastic facility for the UK, where companies operating in the field get the opportunity to use the first-class manufacturing labs to refine their large-scale manufacturing methods to produce their gene delivery vectors, their cell products, or both.
The tours organised for the attendees highlighted the scale of the facility as well as the engineering complexity allowing complete separation of the labs. At present, the centre has six such separate labs that could be occupied by six different companies. Four have already been taken by exciting companies: Freeline, Cell Medica, Autolus and Adaptimmune. A second phase with a second set of six bigger labs, for more advanced processes, has already been approved and will enhance the centre further.
In his presentations, MedImmune’s VP Paul Varley regularly puts up his favourite slide with a picture of “Back to the Future”, to highlight the start of a new journey from the perspective of having done a similar journey before. The journey antibody therapeutics have completed from clinical to commercial success has included huge gains in manufacturing yields, helping to bring down cost. Although they are very different therapies in many ways, the expectation is that cell and gene therapies can travel an equally successful journey.
Stevenage’s new manufacturing centre means that the UK is perfectly placed to play an important role on that journey.
Stephen Ward, COO of the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult (5th from right) showing one of the groups around the new facility.
Greg Clark, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy giving one of the opening speeches. Image: CGT Catapult