New reports show Philly’s cell and gene therapy industry is ‘rapidly growing.’ Can it become the top hub for research and innovation?

Philadelphia is home to nearly 10% of the world’s cell and gene therapy companies, employing about 7,000 people, according to the study.

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a neuroblastoma with rosette formation as seen in a microscope

This December 1993 microscope photo provided by the National Cancer Institute shows a typical neuroblastoma with rosette formation. (Dr. Maria Tsokos/National Cancer Institute via AP)

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Within the last decade, cell and gene therapy research and manufacturing have produced new options — and hope — for people with cancer, inherited or rare disorders, and chronic illnesses that may otherwise be fatal or severely debilitating.

The field is still in its infancy, but scientists are optimistic that these new therapeutics will lead to major advancements in how health care providers can treat, prevent or cure disease.

And a growing number of cell and gene therapies companies and experts doing this kind of work are calling Philadelphia home, according to a new report by the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia.

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Claire Greenwood, chamber senior vice president of economic competitiveness, said over time, this could make the region a top hub for innovative research and breakthroughs, and make it a major competitor with markets in Boston and San Francisco.

“I think what we’ve seen and what we’ll continue to see is when our institutions invest in really cutting-edge science, if we bring all the other pieces together, we’re going to see advantages around how that allows us to compete,” Greenwood said.

Cell and gene therapies involve training cells from the body’s immune system to fight off cancer and other diseases, or modifying genetic material and DNA to correct a problem caused by a genetic mutation like with sickle cell disease.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, in partnership with Novartis pharmaceutical company, which has offices in King of Prussia, pioneered CAR-T cell therapy over a decade ago. Kymriah became the first FDA-approved gene therapy drug for cancer in 2017.

Today, the Greater Philadelphia region is home to about 10% of the world’s cell and gene therapy companies, according to the chamber report.

The number of companies that have set up laboratories, offices or campuses in the area has doubled since 2018. They employ an estimated 7,000 people and have created several significant construction projects across the region.

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Cell and gene therapy projects and clinical trials have brought in about $362 million in federal grants and funding to the local area. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania are among the top 10 institutions in the world with the largest numbers of gene therapy patents, the report shows.

All of this is a boon to the local economy, workforce training opportunities, academic partnerships and more, said Jason Bannon, chamber senior vice president of marketing and communications.

“What seemed like cutting edge technology that was hard to comprehend 10 years ago is now creating communities and is now creating the jobs,” Bannon said. “Reports like this…suggest where there are currents, where there are things developing that are really worth building on.”

Greenwood said she sees this as a chance for Greater Philadelphia to establish a larger ecosystem for companies and leaders doing work in life sciences and biotech, and an opportunity to open the door to other kinds of advancements in the field.

“The more we can think about the elements that have made this particular space successful and help support what could be next, whether it’s mRNA [technology] or any other potential area of opportunity, I think that’s really where we’ll see exponential growth,” Greenwood said.

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