New initiatives pump money into cell and gene therapy development in New York

Published: Nov 16, 2023

By Charlotte LoBuono


A pair of new initiatives are infusing money into life sciences innovation in New York at a time when biotech funding is generally scarce. Together, the recently-announced projects, spearheaded by the state and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, will bring about $370 million in funding to biotech in the Empire State.

Bringing Cancer Therapies to Patients in Buffalo

At the start of this year, in her State of the State Speech, New York Governor Kathy Hochul proposed the creation of two gene and cell therapy hubs: one in upstate New York and one located downstate. On October 13, she announced the first hub will be located in the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo.

Empire State Development, the government agency that promotes economic growth in New York State, is investing $30 million in a new good manufacturing practice (GMP) facility at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. The plan is to expand the existing facility from six to 20 clean rooms to support research and the development of cell and gene therapies targeting cancer. Construction has started and the new facility is expected to be open by the first quarter of 2025, said Renier Brentjens, deputy director and chair of medicine at Roswell Park.

A total of $98 million is committed to the project, which will fund staffing and equipment for the facility, as well as labs there where scientists and clinicians will work together on translating novel cellular approaches into therapies. Brentjens said that the new center is also expected to generate revenue, which will be put back into running it. Empire State Development is working with partners to develop a downstate hub, the location of which has not yet been announced.

He added that Roswell Park is also interested in working with biotech companies on translating novel cell and gene therapies, noting that clinical translation is one of the biggest obstacles in the development of such therapies. That’s in part because if they follow a traditional pathway, biotechs with limited funds and production capabilities need to identify a company that makes the virus or the cells in compliance with the strict quality-control protocols required for use in humans, then find an academic institution to run the clinical trials. The goal is to have the biohub provide all those services through this new GMP facility in association with the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“This is a novel way of trying to help not just ourselves but also smaller biotech companies with limited budgets move these therapies into patients,” Brentjens told BioSpace.

Brentjens said this model will allow companies to succeed that might otherwise have failed. “Even more importantly, we are taking interesting cell and gene therapies that may have fallen by the wayside and seeing what their impact is on our patients’ lives and the cancer they have,” he said. Christopher Choi, senior vice president of industry partnerships and technical director of the new GMP facility, noted that the facility will also support collaborators as they work toward potential FDA marketing approval for new therapies. 

Developing Cellular Sentries in the Big Apple

On the heels of the Roswell Park news, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative announced on October 18 the launch of its next biomedical research hub, to be located in New York City. According to Stephen Quake, head of science at CZI, CZI plans to invest $250 million over the next 10 years to establish CZ Biohub NY together with partners Rockefeller University and Columbia University in New York City and Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. In addition to the funding from CZI, New York City and New York State are contributing $10 million each to CZ Biohub NY.

CZ Biohub NY scientists will work with cellular and mouse models to bioengineer immune cells, which come in contact with almost all tissues in the body. The goal is to develop “cellular endoscopes” that can monitor changes in cells so that interventions can prevent diseases from developing in the first place or treat illness before it becomes too advanced to respond to standard therapies.

“The goal is to come up with the fundamental principles that allow us to reprogram immune cells to do what they do, but better,” said Andrea Califano, president of CZ Biohub NY and the Clyde and Helen Wu Professor of Chemical and Systems Biology at Columbia.

The biohub will have both an extramural and an intramural component, he said. The extramural program will leverage the expertise of the three participating institutions, and will fund about 20 scientists per year for a period of three to five years each as they design and conduct studies conducive to the end goals of CZ Biohub NY. “This will allow us to hit the ground running, so we don’t have to create labs and we don’t have to recruit” during the project’s initial period, Califano said.

Intramurally, the biohub will develop and use technology that does not exist at other institutions in the area, such as a platform called a “patient on a chip,” which involves coupling multiple mature, cultured tissues on a microfluidic chip via blood perfusion.

A physical site in Manhattan for the biohub is being chosen now, Quake said. He hopes it will be selected by the end of this year.

CZ Biohub NY is the fourth research institute in the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub Network. It joins the first biohub in San Francisco, a second in Chicago and the Chan Zuckerberg Institute for Advanced Biological Imaging in Redwood City, California.

The hubs have made the immune system a major component of their scientific mission, Califano said. He added that the technology CZ Biohub NY will develop will be complementary and synergistic to that of the other hubs. For example, the Chan Zuckerberg Institute for Advanced Biological Imaging in Redwood City, Calif., will provide CZ Biohub NY access to sophisticated imaging of cells. 

“We are excited to explore their synergies with one another. We want to tap into all that awesome scientific talent and brainpower,” Quake said. He added that going forward, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and neurodegenerative diseases are on the CZ Biohub Network’s radar. 

“We were just blown away by the quality of science in New York,” Quake said. “We feel like they are going to do great things and change the course of biology.”

“Myself and others at Roswell are eager to attract biotech to Western NYS and believe it is feasible,” Brentjens said. He added that he hopes the construction of the GMP facility at Roswell Park will draw some of the growing number of cell therapy startups.

Source: BioSpace