Expanding the Cell and Gene Therapy Ecosystem in Philadelphia

The Cell & Gene Therapy and Connected Health Initiative of the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia’s CEO Council for Growth is bringing the community together to drive growth in the cell and gene sector with the goal of advancing Greater Philadelphia as a leading global hub in the field.

The Original Home of Cell and Gene Therapy

The cell and gene therapy field got its start in Philadelphia two decades ago.  Discoveries originating here have led to a total of five U.S. FDA-approved cell and gene therapies have their origins in the Greater Philadelphia region, including Kymriah™ (Novartis Pharmaceuticals), the first FDA-approved cell therapy, and LUXTURNA™ (Spark Therapeutics), the first FDA-approved gene therapy.

Today, that high level of research in the cell and gene therapy field continues in the city. Within the overall Greater Philadelphia healthcare ecosystem, there are 15 major medical systems that support patients, renowned researchers, and novel drug developers, including those involved in the commercialization of innovative cell and gene therapies.

Overall, asserts Parviz Shamlou, who is Vice President & Executive Director of the Jefferson Institute for Bioprocessing (JIB) at Thomas Jefferson University, “Philadelphia and the Greater Philadelphia region have a very rich history in excellent translational research.”

Prioritizing Greater Philadelphia as a Hub of Cell and Gene Therapy Research

In 2019, the Philadelphia CEO Council for Growth launched the Cell & Gene Therapy and Connected Health Initiative to leverage the region’s specialized assets with the goal of accelerating growth and ultimately expanding Greater Philadelphia’s recognition as the global hub of research, talent, capital, and companies in cell and gene therapy, gene editing, and connected health, according to the Council’s Executive Director Claire Greenwood. Key components of the program include shared storytelling; the development of critical infrastructure; talent assessment, attraction, and training; and the building of a scalable ecosystem.

“The importance of the Cell & Gene Therapy and Connected Health Initiative is to put greater Philadelphia on the global stage as a hub of cell and gene therapy. We are focusing not only on our internal stakeholders but in bringing the message to the external audience as well. We are working to get our messaging out, telling our story in-market to build ambassadors in the community and out-of-market to attract interest outside of Greater Philadelphia,” Greenwood says. She adds that the Initiative is a unique program not seen anywhere else because it brings both science and non-science-based companies and organizations together to build an economic growth strategy.

Driving towards Commercialization

The cell and gene therapy industry is benefiting from the heavy concentration of research activity in the Greater Philadelphia region. “The Philadelphia area is widely known for very successful gene and cell therapy companies,” observes Maria P. Limberis, Vice President of Research at Spirovant Sciences.

Today, more than 40 companies in the area are developing cell and gene therapies (up from 30 three years ago). There are also many support firms and several fully integrated global biopharma companies in the area. Overall, there are 70,000 employed in the life sciences industry in the region, and more than $1.25 billion in venture capital was raised by Philadelphia-area life sciences firms in the first half of 2021.

Focusing on cell and gene therapy, since 2018, companies spun out from Penn alone, such as Cabaletta Bio, Tmunity Therapeutics, Passage Bio, Imvax, and Century Therapeutics, have raised more than $1.5 billion in investment capital. Cabaletta Bio, Castle Creek Bio, Century Therapeutics, and Passage Bio have all issued IPOs since 2019 (DealForma 2021).

“One of the things the Initiative is emphasizing is the core science that has been established in Greater Philadelphia, which is a real advantage in the cell and gene therapy space. Many of the academic research institutions in the area made commitments to the science — beginning more than 25 years ago — and we are now seeing the commercial fruit of that activity,” Greenwood states.

Attracting Entrepreneurs and Talent

That long-term research commitment and increased commercial activity is attracting talent and expertise to the Greater Philadelphia region. Between 2010 and 2020, Philadelphia County’s biotechnology research and development sector added 4,510 jobs, an increase of 787% (Bureau of Labor Statistics, July 2021). The cell and gene therapy workforce is expected to grow 35–94% in the next 10 years, using midrange projections. That could account for 6,558–9,396 jobs (Econsult, 2019).

In fact, the Greater Philadelphia area is ranked second best globally for attracting entrepreneurs and skilled technology graduates (JLL, 2019) and fourth for medical research and health services (CBRE, 2019). In addition, in 2018 the Philadelphia Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) had the second-highest number of job postings for “cell therapy” and “gene therapy,” following Boston but surpassing New York City (Source: Burning Glass Technologies, 2019). Furthermore, there are 38 four-year colleges offering programs related to life sciences in the region, producing over 18,500 life sciences/STEM degrees in 2017 (Newmark Knight, 2019), with slightly more than half of the college graduates remaining in the Philadelphia area (Campus Philly, 2018)

Today, there are nearly 1000 IND [Investigational New Drug] studies underway in the Philadelphia area that are in early clinical phases, and over 300 of those are in cancer. These discoveries need to be translated into practical medicines that are safe, efficacious, and affordable. As a result, there is a great deal of opportunity for talented people who want to build their careers in Greater Philadelphia,” comments Shamlou.

Providing Practical Training

The Jefferson Institute for Bioprocessing (JIB )at Thomas Jefferson University is one good example of the important infrastructure that exists within the life sciences ecosystem in the Greater Philadelphia area.  It was established, Shamlou says, to address a significant gap in existing workforce training in the biomanufacturing space. “We created the Institute for Bioprocessing to specifically train and educate next-generation scientists and engineers who wish to develop their careers in biomanufacturing. We have 25,000 square feet of space in which we simulate the GMP manufacturing environment using state-of-the-art single-use technologies from Cytiva for the production of biologics, including cell and gene therapies,” he explains. Both companies and people looking to work for them benefit from this specialized training.

Getting Noticed

All of the cell and gene therapy development activity in the Greater Philadelphia region has not gone unnoticed. Philadelphia was named an emerging New World City for innovation in healthcare and life sciences by JLL in 2019 and considered among the top 20 cities for excellence in innovation (JLL, 2019). It was number 7 on Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News’ (GEN) top-10 list of biopharma clusters in March 2021, on Hickey and Associates’ list of 2020 Top 25 Global Innovation Hubs, and number 6 in the 2020 JLL Life Sciences Real Estate Outlook. The Greater Philadelphia region is also consistently ranked among the top 10 U.S. life science hubs.

Connected Across Life Sciences and Health

In addition to driving cell and gene therapy research, Greater Philadelphia is taking the lead in connected health technologies that will improve patients’ lives. One notable example is Quil Health, an Independence Blue Cross and Comcast joint venture to develop a patient-centered technology and communications platform that will improve overall efficiency and experience of the care delivery process between providers and patients.

Other connected care startups in the area include EIR Healthcare, which won the Fast Company’s 2019 Innovation by Design Award in healthcare; Astarte Medical, a Yardley, Pa.-based software company in the precision medicine space; Panorama Medicine, which uses genomics and computing to accelerate drug discovery; HealthVerity, which creates cloud-based software-as-a-service platforms for pharmaceutical companies, payers, and other health care organizations; and Oncora Medical, a developer of software for the management of cancer patients. Meanwhile, Haystack Informatics, which applies behavioral analytics technology to hospital operations to drive efficiencies and safeguard data privacy, was acquired by Latric Systems, and healthcare payments tech firm InstaMed was acquired by J.P. Morgan Chase. 

Direct Benefits for Cell and Gene Therapy Developers

One of the newer companies attracted to the Greater Philadelphia region is Spirovant Sciences, which is developing genetic therapies for diseases that affect the lung. Its first targeted indication is cystic fibrosis (CF), a devastating disease that causes severe respiratory distress. Existing treatments help 80–90% of CF patients, according to Maria P. Limberis, VP of Research at Spirovant Sciences Inc., but, for people with certain mutations, current therapies are ineffective.

“Spirovant’s adeno-associated virus (AAV)-based gene therapeutic is designed to deliver a functional CFTR gene to the diseased CF lungs to improve lung function, allowing people with CF to have an improved quality of life and live longer,” Limberis says. 

When Spirovant sought a place in which to locate, the company wanted to be in an area that offered a combination of academic institutions and the infrastructure needed to support the expansion of biotechnology firms. “Philadelphia was the logical choice,” asserts the company’s CSO Roland Kolbeck. “We are involved in basic biology through clinical translation. In the Greater Philadelphia area, there are world-renowned scientists and clinicians that work in the field of cystic fibrosis and respiratory diseases as a whole. University City in the heart of Philadelphia was a very easy choice to make as the prime location for Spirovant,” he comments. 

Limberis adds that the proximity to both renowned academic institutions and other biotechnology companies that work in gene and cell therapies is instrumental to leveraging all of the combined knowledge, numerous opportunities for communication, and talent that is attracted to the area. “As more companies move to the region, there is a positive feedback loop that drives even greater interest,” she believes.

Coming Together as a Community

Philadelphia and its surroundings have been a hotbed of pharmaceutical companies for many years, even more so than New York and New Jersey, according to Dave Goswami, CEO and Chairman of IPS - Integrated Project Services, LLC, one of the fastest-growing companies in the AEC (architecture, engineering, and construction) industry.  

“The center of the city is home to a number of universities and teaching hospitals, and the talent pool in the area is tremendous. With the industry changing, moving toward new technologies like mRNA, and cell and gene therapies increasing, there is an even greater need for science, and that science has been established from the outset here in the Greater Philadelphia area. IPS was started back in 1989, as a unique firm focused on delivering design–build services on an integrated platform for the life sciences industry, and we have been doing business in the region since then. It is a special place,” he concludes. IPS has benefited from the talent pool in the region, hiring an extensive roster of subject matter experts, renowned in their field, providing solutions that help pharmaceutical companies create and manufacture life-impacting products,  

“The future for companies like Spirovant as participants in the Greater Philadelphia cell and gene therapy technology hub is very, very exciting,” Kolbeck adds. “This hub is basically the epicenter of cell and gene therapy, and over the next few years, it will become even more so, with a growing emphasis on clinical translation. Spirovant will be part of that by developing genetic therapies for cystic fibrosis and other genetic inherited childhood diseases that affect the lungs,” he says.

Greenwood, meanwhile, intends for the Greater Philadelphia area to be widely recognized as an important hub for cell and gene therapy, not just with respect to research but also for growing organizations that are fully integrated and present in the market. “That recognition is already rising, because we have come together as a community to tackle the talent and workforce needs of the sector by not only attracting key talent but also by building collaborative partnerships and solutions to really ensure that our local community is connected to these jobs as they grow and multiply. The result is an entire, fully integrated ecosystem that acts as a growth engine for the cell and gene therapy sector,” she contends.

David Alvaro, Ph.D.

David is Scientific Editor in Chief of the Pharma’s Almanac content enterprise, responsible for directing and generating industry, scientific and research-based content, including client-owned strategic content, in addition to serving as Scientific Research Director for That's Nice. Before joining That’s Nice, David served as a scientific editor for the multidisciplinary scientific journal Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. He received a B.A. in Biology from New York University in 1999 and a Ph.D. in Genetics and Development from Columbia University in 2008.