Pfizer looks at building major gene therapy manufacturing facility in North Carolina

Pfizer, which scooped up Bamboo Therapeutics last year in its aim to be a major player in gene therapies, is now looking at building a gene therapy production facility in North Carolina where the biotech is based.

Pfizer spokeswoman Kimberly Becker confirmed a report by the Triangle Business Journal that the company has been exploring the area. The newspaper was told by sources that Pfizer has talked to state and local officials about a potential $100 million expansion project. Bamboo is based in Chapel Hill. 

“We recently announced that we’re moving forward with scoping potential sites in Sanford for our new gene therapy site. This work is still in the preliminary stages and we aren’t able to share additional detail at this time,” Becker said in an email.

The sources told the newspaper that Pfizer also is considering putting it in Massachusetts. The drugmaker currently is erecting a $200 million biologics and vaccines production facility at its campus in Andover.  

But Bamboo already has an 11,000-square foot, fully staffed and operational manufacturing facility in Sanford it acquired last year from the University of North Carolina about the time that Pfizer made an initial investment in the company. Bamboo has produced phase I and II materials using a in the facility using what Pfizer said was “superior suspension, cell-based production platform that increases scalability, efficiency and purity.”

Pfizer last year bought Bamboo in two-step deal, laying out $193 million to acquire its stock, with a pledge of up to $495 million more in milestones. With gene therapies, genetic material is introduced into a patient’s body to replace gene mutations that cause disease.  

The biotech is working on recombinant adeno-associated virus (rAAV)-based gene therapies for rare diseases. It has a pre-clinical asset for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD); and three targeted at the central nervous system, with pre-clinical assets for Friedreich’s Ataxia and Canavan disease, and a Phase I asset for Giant Axonal Neuropathy, Pfizer said.

Pfizer first entered the emerging field in 2014 with a deal with Spark Therapeutics in hemophilia. At that time, the company also established a dedicated gene therapy research center in London known as the Genetic Medicines Institute which falls under its Rare Disease Research Unit.

While the field offers the hope of one-time cures by dealing with the genetic root cause of a disease, it offers challenges for insurance coverage and payments. There have been no gene therapies approved yet in the U.S., but Dutch company uniQure developed the first gene therapy approved in Europe, a treatment that has been termed the world’s most expensive drug.

Approved in 2012, Glybera is priced at more than $1.2 million. Only one German doctor has been able to win insurance approval, despite the fact the treatment can cure the ultra-rare disease called lipoprotein lipase deficiency. uniQure is now focused on a hemophilia B program, competing with the gene therapy being developed by Spark Therapeutics with Pfizer. uniQure, which has had to eliminate jobs to cut costs, has a $25 million, 55,000-square-foot gene therapy manufacturing facility in Lexington, Massachusetts.

GlaxoSmithKline has also won approval in Europe for Strimvelis, its gene therapy for “bubble boy” disease. It is offering the one-time treatment at about $665,000.