By SHANNON O. WELLS
Pitt BioForge, a highly specialized biomanufacturing facility poised to transform a former brownfield site in Pittsburgh’s Hazelwood neighborhood, is being touted as a breakthrough project for the regional economy as well as the medical research field.
A recently announced agreement with Cambridge, Mass.-based biotech company ElevateBio is indicative of the momentum behind what’s widely considered Pitt’s game-changing project. Funded by a $100 million grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, Pitt BioForge is expected to transform an old mill site and former brownfield to leverage Pitt’s cutting-edge biomedical research and UPMC’s clinical care.
Pitt and industry leaders recently gathered with community members and elected officials outside the Roundhouse at Hazelwood Green to inaugurate a 30-year strategic partnership between Pitt and ElevateBio to accelerate development of innovative cell and gene therapies at Pitt BioForge. The agreement calls for ElevateBio to collaborate with Pitt to locate one of its BaseCamp process development and Good Manufacturing Practice facilities in Pittsburgh.
For a Pitt researcher like Bill Stauffer, BioForge and the ElevateBio collaboration represent a direction that seems both overdue and standard bearing for the future of bioresearch.
“Pitt (School of Medicine) is near the top of all universities in total (National Institutes of Health) funding. In neuroscience alone, we are ranked seventh in the country. Compared to that — as far as I know — the number of biological start-ups we create is extremely limited,” Stauffer, assistant professor of neurobiology, told University Times. “The upshot of this disparity is incredible, unrealized potential. (BioForge) can catalyze the conversion of that potential. Therefore, I think the relationship and the synergistic effects are unique but will undoubtedly inspire similar approaches at other research universities.”
Stauffer, who came to Pitt in 2015, uses nonhuman primates (NHPs) in his neurobiology lab to investigate how the brain codes reward and decision making.
“In the past 20 years, cutting-edge tools to study brain circuits have proliferated, and I would like to use them to study reward and decision making in NHPs,” he said. “Unfortunately, these tools have been developed and work well in transgenic mice, but not in wild-type organisms.”
Collaborating with Pitt professors Leah Byrne, Afonso Silva and Andreas Pfenning with the goal of enhancing molecular and viral approaches in primates both human and nonhuman, Stauffer is hopeful Pitt BioForge can help establish “distribution schemes” so the wider neuroscience community can easily access tools the team develops. He regards the timing of Pitt BioForge plans “extremely fortunate” as his team was recently awarded a BRAIN Initiative U-grant to further their NHP research.
“One of this University’s major strengths is its emphasis on NHP research,” Stauffer said, “(which) accounts for a small portion of the NIH budget, yet the impact of NHP research on basic science and preclinical research is hard to overestimate. BioForge can capitalize on Pitt’s existing strength in NHP research, provide resources and reagents optimized for NHP, and help Pitt investigators transform their insights into therapeutics.”
Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said at the event announcing the partnership that the deal “supports the region’s rise as a leader in cell and gene therapy and advances our vision of bringing an entirely new commercial manufacturing sector to the area. The University of Pittsburgh is proud to partner with ElevateBio in this work, which will see us leveraging lessons from the lab in new and exciting ways for the benefit of human health.”
“We have some exceptional emerging research coming out of the University of Pittsburgh. However, the missing ingredient has been access to high-quality process science and manufacturing capabilities,” said Anantha Shekhar, Pitt senior vice chancellor for the health sciences.
David Hallal, chair and CEO of ElevateBio, called Pittsburgh an “ideal location” to extend the company’s BaseCamp presence “as it sits at the intersection of science, technology and talent. To realize our vision of transforming the cell and gene therapy field for decades to come, broadening our footprint across metropolitan areas is a key priority for us, and we are thrilled that the University of Pittsburgh will be home to one of our BaseCamp facilities.”
As part of a $35 million investment, ElevateBio plans to lease 80,000 square feet of BioForge space from Pitt, expanding from the company’s first site in Waltham, Mass. The facility will include gene editing, induced pluripotent stem cell and cell, vector and protein engineering capabilities. ElevateBio is targeted to move into the facility in 2026, with the partnership expected to generate more than 170 permanent full-time jobs, 900 construction jobs and 360 off-site support jobs, Pittwire reported.
Biomanufacturing is a hot topic these days. Last week, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to launch a National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative that aims to accelerate biotechnology innovation and grow America’s bioeconomy across multiple sectors, including health, agriculture and energy. The administration said it wants to grow domestic biomanufacturing capacity, drive research and development, train a diverse skilled workforce and streamline regulations for products of biotechnology.
Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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