Greater Philadelphia has the assets and capacity to accelerate science and patient care in the next biotech revolution, and leaders in the region’s life sciences ecosystem had a chance to show that last week when U.S. Senator Bob Casey and the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia welcomed the Honorable Xavier Becerra, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary, for a visit. Among the topics for the October 21, 2022, roundtable discussion were developing breakthrough treatments for genetic and life-threatening diseases and collaborating on innovative solutions to grow the region’s life sciences workforce.

Leaders of Greater Philadelphia’s world-class academic research institutions sat side-by-side with the CEOs of the spinouts, startups, and fast-growth early-stage companies that grew from their discoveries, and it was clear to all in the room that there is energy and momentum behind building the most diverse life sciences ecosystem in the country.

They wanted to communicate the region’s deep scientific and medical history, highlight current collaborations, and demonstrate Greater Philadelphia’s unique position to advance medical breakthroughs over the next decade.

Senator Casey was instrumental in bringing Secretary Becerra to Philadelphia.

“Philadelphia is home to remarkable, cutting-edge research and technology in the life sciences industry,” said Senator Casey. “I was honored to show Secretary Becerra the specialized innovation the region has to offer. I look forward to the continued growth of the life sciences in Pennsylvania and am proud that Philadelphia is on the forefront of such research.”

The visit began with a lab tour of Spark Therapeutics. “It was a wonderful opportunity to host the meeting here and showcase the important work our industry is doing here in Philadelphia,” stated Ron Philip, Spark Therapeutics Chief Executive Officer. “The ecosystem and diverse environment in Philadelphia, with easy access to world-class universities, medical centers, and many other partners, is really an integral part of Spark’s DNA.” 

The Secretary then heard stories illustrating the Greater Philadelphia region’s specialized strengths in several of the fastest-growing sub-sectors of the life sciences industry, particularly cell therapy, gene therapy, mRNA technology, and gene editing. More than two decades ago, cell and gene therapy research was pioneered in the Greater Philadelphia region, as were the translational science and clinical trials that have advanced medicine and breakthrough successes in commercial developments, including first-in-class Kymriah® and Luxturna®.

The life sciences leaders highlighted the region’s deep and diverse talent pool, consistent record in attracting more than $1.3 billion in NIH funding annually, the most in cell and gene therapy, and a family tree of cell and gene therapy spinouts, startups, and management talent that emanated from the region’s world-class academic research institutions. More than 55 cell and gene therapy R&D and related companies now call Greater Philadelphia home.

Whether hearing from researchers, university leaders, government and civic representatives, or cell and gene therapy company CEOS, their stories shared a common theme – the strength and quality of the collaborations and connections between our academic, healthcare, and industry is what makes the Greater Philadelphia life sciences ecosystem unlike any other. 

“The Philadelphia life science ecosystem has accelerated and facilitated our efforts at Cabaletta to develop and launch the first curative cell therapies for patients with autoimmune diseases,” said Steven Nichtberger, MD, President, CEO, and Co-founder of Cabaletta Bio.

“Imvax’s technology was developed at Jefferson University Hospital, and our company’s origin and progress has been accelerated by Philadelphia’s first-class ecosystem. This event was a great opportunity for Philadelphia to showcase the incredible innovation taking place across this region,” said John Furey, CEO of Imvax, whose company’s founders have roots in the region’s pharmaceutical manufacturing sector.

“As a leading global biotech company, CSL Behring is committed to Our Promise of bringing innovative, life-saving therapies to people living with rare and serious diseases. With our U.S. headquarters based in Greater Philadelphia, we’re able to tap into the local ecosystem to grow our highly skilled workforce,” said Michael Ruggiero, Senior Vice President of Global Policy, Advocacy, and Government Affairs, CSL Behring. “With local access to academic research institutions, gene therapy start-ups and some of the leading scientific minds in the world, we’re able to collaborate with local partners to deliver a healthier world for tomorrow.”

Kevin Mahoney, CEO of the University of Pennsylvania Health System, discussed research and innovations that have origins in the region and will be the linchpin for even greater future discoveries, including the breakthrough mRNA technology at Penn Medicine that enabled the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines.

“This next revolution in medicine is going to be focused on four things – gene therapy, cell therapy, mRNA technology, and gene editing. The first three were born in Philadelphia. This translational science is happening here and will be the platform for even more discoveries in the future,” said Dawn Bonnell, Senior Vice Provost for Research, University of Pennsylvania.

Susan Furth, MD, Ph.D., Chief Scientific Officer at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), shared ways CHOP and the region continue to invest in these cutting-edge therapies and the infrastructure necessary for growth, including the creation of the CHOP Clinical Vector Core, an award-winning, state-of-the-art, multi-product GMP manufacturing facility.

Aleister Saunders, Ph.D., Executive Vice Provost for Research & Innovation at Drexel University, talked about the role of the region’s academic institutions in supporting homegrown innovation with academic programs and workforce development initiatives that align with the industry’s current and future talent needs such as Drexel’s prestigious co-op program.

“We have a community of people committed to building and growing the number one life sciences ecosystem here in Greater Philadelphia and truly impacting the future of healthcare,”  said Claire Marrazzo Greenwood, Executive Director and Senior Vice President of Economic Competitiveness for The Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia. “We planted a lot of seeds in this discussion that could yield future opportunities for our region. The visit by Secretary Becerra and Senator Casey was a great moment to convene members of our region’s life sciences ecosystem and show how, both now and in the future, the region is uniquely poised to advance medical breakthroughs.”

In June, The Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia announced the region’s intention to seek to be the new home for a recently announced $1 billion federal agency, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), which is expected to be located outside of Washington D.C.  In a letter sent to Secretary Becerra and signed by business, civic, and elected officials, signers touted the region’s expertise in cell and gene therapy and gene editing, its rank as one of the top five life sciences markets in the U.S., and its deep scientific and medical ecosystem as reasons why this area stands out as the ideal location. The new agency, established earlier this year, will speed up transformative biomedical and health breakthroughs by funding new and innovative research.