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Unlocking the cell: Stevenage’s groundbreaking new cell and gene therapy centre

PUBLISHED: 09:53 14 November 2017 | UPDATED: 12:07 23 November 2017

A patient's cells can be 'trained' to detect and destroy cancer cells like these (photo: xrender, Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A patient's cells can be 'trained' to detect and destroy cancer cells like these (photo: xrender, Getty Images/iStockphoto)

xrender

A word-first centre for groundbreaking medical research that could tackle previously untreatable diseases has opened in Stevenage. Louise McEvoy reports on the £67m site that could save lives on a global scale

The manufacture of cells on a major scale will allow for large-scale trials of treatments - a stumbling block in their development at present (photo: Daniel Burman) The manufacture of cells on a major scale will allow for large-scale trials of treatments - a stumbling block in their development at present (photo: Daniel Burman)

Hertfordshire’s place in global science will take another leap forward with the opening this autumn of a world-first laboratory hub that aims to find cures for untreatable and difficult to treat illnesses using revolutionary new technology.

Sited on the Gunnels Wood Road science corridor in Stevenage – home to Airbus Defence and Space, GlaxoSmithKline and Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst among others – the £67m site provides the facilities for companies to develop effective new treatments for diseases such as cancer using groundbreaking gene and cell therapy. Gene therapy can correct abnormal genes, while cell therapy involves the removal of cells from a patient, their modification, and then reinjection in order to repair the direct causes of genetic diseases.

The centre was funded by the government as part of a goal to enhance the UK’s science base – £55m from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in 2014 and £12m this year from its Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.

The company behind the new facility, London based Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult (CGT Catapult), was founded in 2012 to bridge the gap between scientific research and the commercial sector. It has played a key role in the creation of cells that are ‘trained’ to recognise a protein in leukaemia cells and then attack and destroy them.

(Photo: Daniel Burman) (Photo: Daniel Burman)

Currently, one issue holding up cell therapy research globally is the low availability of the large numbers of cells needed to perform major clinical trials. The Stevenage manufacturing centre will allow UK and international businesses developing new cell therapy treatments to use its labs to create cells for these studies.

‘Our mission is to facilitate the growth of a major UK industry, bringing transformative therapies to patients that present new options in challenging disease areas,’ explains Keith Thompson, CEO of CGT Catapult. ‘The Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult holds unique expertise across the cell and gene therapy development cycle and aims to bring forward the availability of innovative treatments for patients in the UK and worldwide on a grand scale.’

The 7,200 square metre centre will not only provide the UK with the facilities needed for large scale clinical studies and commercialisation, the aim is also to develop new manufacturing processes in a collaborative environment. The building features a series of large ‘clean room’ modules that can be occupied by businesses conducting trials or commercial manufacture of therapies on a significant scale.

‘It is designed to help de-risk capital investment in product development by reducing the outlay required to bring trials to fruition and to collaborate on the new technologies needed in manufacture and supply from the factory to the bedside,’ Keith says. ‘The manufacturing centre offers businesses developing new innovative cell and gene therapies opportunities to accelerate their trials and subsequent commercialisation globally. Ultimately, this acceleration aims to bring these rapidly evolving medicines to patients sooner.’

The manufacturing centre is the latest collaborative venture on the GSK/Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst site The manufacturing centre is the latest collaborative venture on the GSK/Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst site

The centre is on the Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst (SBC) campus, which opened in 2012 and is also home to pharmaceutical giant and stakeholder GlaxoSmithKline.

With laboratories and offices for hire, the campus offers access to equipment and facilities that would otherwise be beyond the reach of small and medium-sized firms. The venture – involving the government, GlaxoSmithKline, the Wellcome Trust and Innovate UK – encourages open innovation in order to accelerate the discovery of cutting-edge healthcare solutions.

At the moment there are 46 companies based at SBC, with scientists working towards improving healthcare in fields such as cancer, inflammation, infectious diseases and the respiratory system. Central nervous system diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are also being investigated, and scientists are working on advances in stem cell research.

Miranda Knaggs, Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst interim chief executive, says it has taken ‘too long and too much money’ to develop drugs for certain treatments and big pharmaceutical companies have realised they are not going to deliver the answers by themselves.

Gene research at Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst (photo: Jennifer Bailey) Gene research at Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst (photo: Jennifer Bailey)

‘They are starting to collaborate more with other pharmaceutical companies and small biotechs to give them new ideas.’

Those who hire labs at SBC might only have an idea on paper but are supported to see if it can be transformed into a viable product. Others need their own laboratory or somewhere to meet clients.

Miranda says the aim ‘is all about improving people’s lives’. She adds, ‘Glaxo is supporting these companies because it wants to raise the quality of science in the UK, and in turn we have access to Glaxo’s technology and business expertise. Open innovation promotes a ‘fail fast’ environment. Funding is tight, so it stops things getting funding for years even though they will never go anywhere.’

Research has progressed in many ways over the past five years. For example, a University of Cambridge research project focused on chronic inflammatory disease is making progress in its drug discovery and has attracted interest from a potential partner.

Embryonic stem cells - the building blocks for regenerative medicine (photo: Dr_Microbe, Thinkstock) Embryonic stem cells - the building blocks for regenerative medicine (photo: Dr_Microbe, Thinkstock)

‘Plans for the future at the Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst include continuing to develop the collaborative and supportive environment for tenants, and we are also developing plans for a new building,’ Miranda says. ‘GSK and our other stakeholders remain very supportive. There is strong interaction between the catalyst tenants and experts at Glaxo. Many of our tenants cite access to this expertise as an important driver for location at the catalyst.’

Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult chose the site to locate its manufacturing centre for other reasons too – it is less than 24 hours from major European clinical centres and in close proximity to international air transport links at London Heathrow to enable the time-critical transport of patients’ cells to and from the developer facility. It is also suitably placed within the ‘golden triangle’ of UK bioscience – Oxford-Cambridge-London.

‘Stevenage is also at the centre of a growing cluster and the location allows for expansion of a technology support cluster around the new facility,’ Keith says.

‘Its position on the Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst campus will provide additional inward investment from global companies as well as support the small and medium enterprise biotech and life sciences companies based in the UK.

Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst opened in 2012. It is the UK's first open innovation biomedical campus Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst opened in 2012. It is the UK's first open innovation biomedical campus

‘The Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst and its open innovation campus is a unique and thriving open innovation bioscience community with the added benefit of having excellent UK and international logistics.’

CGT Catapult estimates the UK cell therapy industry has the potential by 2035 to create 18,000 jobs, claim a 15 per cent share of global activity, and make £10bn in revenue. Forecasts suggest that firms using the Stevenage manufacturing centre will generate £1.2bn by the 2020s, with 80 per cent of that via export. The facility is expected to create up to 150 jobs.

‘The area will allow for the attraction and retention of the key talent required in the cutting edge cell and gene therapy manufacture industry,’ Keith explains. ‘The nature of the facility means that highly qualified and trained personnel will be required to achieve robust manufacture and quality assurance.’

The campus as a whole is also forging links between disciplines not readily associated with medical science, such as IT specialists and engineers, which, Miranda says, will facilitate a shift in the way we take medicines in the future and support the struggling NHS.

‘Modern drug development and healthcare will increasingly see interaction between different disciplines in areas such as digital health and artificial intelligence,’ she says. ‘For example, at Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst we now have companies focused on big data and automation engineering.

‘As Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst and the campus expands, we expect to see companies working across a range of disciplines. This shift will support the NHS in several ways – generation of new drugs, devices and diagnostics, better and earlier disease detection, and enabling people to be much more in control of their own health and wellbeing.

‘People will be demanding more information. Hopefully what we do will stop the NHS collapsing. It’s all about being better, faster and cheaper, and we are playing our part in Stevenage.’

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