Spark Therapeutics in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, made Science’s Top Employer Survey this year. This company and others like it create a growing hub of some of the world’s leaders in gene and cell therapy.
Affectionally named “Cellicon Valley,” Philadelphia is the birthplace of cell and gene therapy and home to more than 30 companies dedicated to cell and gene therapy research. Philadelphia-based Spark Therapeutics became the first to bring a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved gene therapy to market and has been expanding its footprint in this biotech hotspot for gene and cell therapy ever since, according to Chief Scientific Officer Federico Mingozzi, Ph.D.
In 2013, Spark Therapeutics was founded as a result of the technological and scientific know-how developed at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). Now part of the Roche Group, the company is committed to further growing Philadelphia as a global hub of cell and gene therapy. With ambitious growth plans, the company remains focused on extending its scientific platform and unique competencies to evaluate and select a portfolio of gene therapies targeting diseases of the retina, hemophilia A, lysosomal storage disorders, and neurodegenerative diseases. They currently have four programs in clinical trials advancing therapies to treat hemophilia A, Pompe disease, and choroideremia.
“With Roche’s worldwide reach and resources, we are closer than we’ve ever been before to fulfilling our vision of living in a world where no life is limited by genetic disease,” Mingozzi says. Although many gene therapy studies focus on genetic diseases, Mingozzi notes, there is an appetite to expand gene therapy to more common indications.
Despite the challenges of 2020, there has been tremendous growth at Spark. The company now employs more than 500 people and has a growing footprint in West Philadelphia. Spark has hired more than 130 employees since the start of 2020 and does not intend to slow down as the company heads into the upcoming year. Part of that expansion brought Senior Research Associate Phillip Price, Ph.D. to Spark in February. Drawn by the company’s passion and commitment to treating genetic diseases, Price recalls thinking, “I knew I wanted to be part of this.”
At the time he was hired by Spark, Price had recently completed his doctorate in neuroscience at Emory University and was serving as a visiting researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. His strong conviction about the need to bring more treatments to more patients living with genetic disease, in tandem with a seamless interviewing process, propelled Price to make the leap from Florida to Pennsylvania.
Despite working virtually, Price says he was able to get plugged into the company quickly and find “a strong relationship between the employer and the employees, who encouraged both personal and professional growth.” Price mentions that the company also made significant efforts to understand and respond to the changing dynamics resulting from the pandemic, such as working remotely. He has benefitted from the strong lines of communication from Spark’s leadership and its unique employee programs such as half days every other Friday, which have enabled him to step away from work and relax while learning more about Philadelphia.
Although Price experienced some hesitancy in transitioning from academia to industry, that disappeared when he found that throughout the Spark workforce “people are dedicated to the learning, listening, and innovation needed to bring the best treatments to patients.” Price appreciates that high level of motivation. “Gene therapy is not just about therapeutic targets of the future,” he notes. “This is here now, and the door is open!” At Spark, he finds even more excitement since being a part of Roche provides “a platform to reach globally.”
With experience in studying spinal muscular atrophy, an inherited disorder, Price fits right in with Spark’s central nervous system (CNS) team, which has treatments in its pipeline for other genetic diseases, including Huntington’s disease and Batten disease. Already, he describes the environment as “very dynamic and based on beneficial processes that help cultivate ideas.” Plus, he quickly felt like part of the team, where he says, “everyone has a voice.”
This is the hope: Philadelphia will continue to attract and grow the community of biotechnology experts and become one of the most important hubs for gene and cell therapy in the world.
Science and the city
The thriving life sciences industry in Philadelphia also appealed to Price. More than 42,000 Philadelphians work in life sciences and the city is now rated the fifth largest research and development (R&D) hub in the nation, boasting $10.5 billion spent annually in R&D, according to statistics provided by Life Sciences Pennsylvania. Plus, international information firm EqualOcean reports, “More than 700 life science companies have chosen to come to Philadelphia to develop their products.”
In addition to CHOP, the region is home to a number of other world-class life sciences institutions, including the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, Temple University, and the Drexel University College of Medicine. The combination of Philadelphia’s academic institutions with the thriving environment it provides for biotech start-ups has resulted in an excellent system for networking and collaborating, according to Price.
Mingozzi agrees. He added that Spark is one of a cluster of many active companies in gene and cell therapy that are creating a vibrant biotech center in the city. “Having a hub attracts talent from other cities and retains the talent that is already here,” Mingozzi says. For example, he notes that Philadelphia is a place where people come for training and then stay for work. Overall, “it’s an incredible success story for Philadelphia, and the field of gene and cell therapy is driving this success,” he says.
Still, Mingozzi sees this as just the beginning for Philadelphia. “You’ll see that the driver of this hub will be a couple of companies, like Spark, and that people trained in Philadelphia will start new companies here,” he says. “Then gene therapy will become a major contributor for the local economy.”
This diverse city, however, offers much more than science. Price lives downtown, which he describes as “a very lively and inspiring atmosphere.” As a history buff, he enjoys exploring Philadelphia with its many important sites, including Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and the Betsy Ross House. Thinking of the architecture, museums, and parks, Price has nothing but appreciation for the City of Brotherly Love, saying “it’s really quite beautiful here.”
Notwithstanding its beauty, even more biotech growth lies ahead in Philadelphia’s future. As Mingozzi sees it, “This is the hope: Philadelphia will continue to attract and grow the community of biotechnology experts and become one of the most important hubs for gene and cell therapy in the world.”
Spark ranks among the top employers in Science Careers’ 2020 Top Employer survey. Read more