flying slippers blog

Welcome to Cellacon Valley

September 21, 2017

Steve Tang, President and CEO of the Science Center, gave opening remarks at the 2017 Life Sciences Future Conference held September 18 - 19. Below is an annotated version of his remarks.

 

Today, I’d like to set the stage and share my view of the landscape of Cellacon Valley – the theme of this Life Sciences Future conference. And from where I sit, I have a dramatic and exciting view of the future of life sciences – and the future of our great region and state.

 

Simply put: Cellacon Valley and the broader domain of precision medicine is our moment, as a Life Science PA community, to rise up and lead the development of this emerging industry sector.

This summer the FDA approved Kymriah, a new drug the New York Times describes as “the first-ever treatment that genetically alters a patient’s own cells to fight cancer.”

 

This milestone was transformational on many levels.


For kids like Emily Whitehead, the first pediatric patient to receive this therapy, Kymriah means life! The experimental therapy that led to Kymriah transformed Emily’s cells into trained warriors that recognized her cancer and attacked it.

Emily was six years old and in dire condition when she received the experimental gene therapy at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Today she is 12 and cancer free.

Emily was six years old and in dire condition when she received the experimental gene therapy at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Today she is 12 and cancer free.

 

The day the FDA approved Kymriah is momentous for another reason - it marks the day that precision medicine became part of our national vocabulary.

 

And the Kymriah journey started right here in Philadelphia – in Dr. Carl June’s lab at Penn.

 

What many don’t know is that the groundwork for this breakthrough was laid years before, Dr. June tells us, by Dr. William Kelley, Dean of Penn’s School of Medicine in the 1990s, who laid out a strategic plan to pursue cell and gene therapy.

 

Dr. Kelley’s strategy is bearing fruit as scientists across the region are all racing to develop gene therapies for cancers and other diseases. They’re at companies like Tmunity, Adaptimmune, GSK, Novartis, Spark Therapeutics and Wuxi AppTec, and at research institutions like Penn, CHOP, Temple, Jefferson and The Wistar Institute.  Together they represent the future of this cutting-edge field.

 

Over at the Science Center’s uCity Square development in West Philadelphia, researchers at Spark Therapeutics are developing an immunotherapy treatment to cure childhood blindness. Their gene therapy treatment, which grew out of work at Penn and CHOP, could likely be the second gene therapy approved by the FDA.

 

No matter which term you use –  gene therapy, cell therapy, immunotherapy, personalized medicine or precision medicine – Philadelphia has emerged as a pioneer in this exciting field. It’s now up to us to seize this moment, this opportunity, and cement our claim to Cellacon Valley.

Spark Therapeutics' lab at uCity Square. 

“I can make the argument that Philadelphia has the greatest concentration of foundational research in gene and cell therapy in the world.”

As Spark CEO Jeff Marrazzo told Philadelphia Magazine, “I can make the argument that Philadelphia has the greatest concentration of foundational research in gene and cell therapy in the world.”


Even better, the impact of cell therapy goes far beyond transforming patients’ lives. It creates jobs and raises our region’s economic output.


And happily, there is plenty of room in the precision medicine tent. You see, precision medicine involves all areas of the life sciences industry. Diagnostics, devices, research tools and genomics all play a role.

 

The business of science and research is an enabling business segment for this industry. And the underlying technology is an untold story.

 

Let me give you an example. How many of you shopped on Amazon Prime Day this summer?

 

One of the top sellers was 23andMe’s DIY genetic testing kits. Have you ever used one of these? It’s pretty simple. You spit into a plastic tube and send off the sample to 23AndMe. A few weeks later you get an email link to a report with info on your genetic health and ancestry. This is personalized medicine at its most basic and accessible level.

 

Interestingly enough, this genetic testing kit has ties to Pennsylvania. That plastic tube I mentioned is the OraGene specimen collection device made and sold by OraSure Technologies, based in Bethlehem, PA. This is just one example of the broad potential the precision medicine affords our region and state.

 

So how do we capitalize on this? How do we catalyze our natural strengths and claim Cellacon Valley as our own?  The Brookings report that came out last spring helps us chart a path forward.

 

It calls for the establishment of a precision medicine institute here in Philadelphia that “will serve as a central organizing force” and pool resources to improve our region’s capacity for cell and gene therapy research and commercialization. I’m happy to report that work is already underway on this project.

A few years ago I was travelling down to North Carolina to visit colleagues at Research Triangle Park. As I headed to the baggage claim in the Raleigh Durham Airport, I noticed a large sign reading “Welcome to the Research Triangle.” And I asked myself what would a similar sign in Philadelphia read?

 

Now the answer is clear – as is our charge: How do we make Philadelphia synonymous with precision medicine -- with Cellacon Valley?

 

Let’s work together as a region to ensure that travelers arriving at Philadelphia Airport or 30th Street Station are greeted with a sign reading “Welcome to Cellacon Valley!”

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