Gene therapy could dramatically alter how dozens of inherited diseases are treated. It's also transforming how the academic institutions working in this growing field move research from the laboratory to the clinic.
Private sector skepticism a decade or more ago spurred institutions like the University of Pennsylvania and Nationwide Children's Hospital to advance experimental projects much further before selling their ideas to biopharma companies — a departure from the previous model of identifying a molecular target and letting industry do the heavy lifting.
As a result, university technology transfer officers are much more involved in the technical and commercial details of preclinical drug development, from assembling financing and creating private companies to building manufacturing capacity. The product is a host of new startups, such as AveXis, Spark Therapeutics and Bamboo Therapeutics, that in recent years have been swallowed up by large pharmaceutical companies.
"The old way is, 'I have a patent, I'm going to throw it over the fence to you and you throw me a sack of money,'" said John Swartley, managing director of the University of Pennsylvania's Penn Center for Innovation, in an interview. "This is completely different. This is co-development."
"We're directly involved over multiple years in helping to move the technology forward. And our commercialization partner is going to take it hopefully all the way to the market."
A paper published earlier this month in JAMA quantifies the shift. Together, hospitals, universities and the National Institutes of Health sponsored 206 of the 341 identified gene therapy trials that were active in 2019. Biotech and pharma companies led the remaining 135.
Measured by funding, hospitals, universities and the NIH had a hand in more than 280 of those studies, as some trials had multiple funders. Fourteen trials were funded by other federal sources or non-profit charities.
Hospitals and universities were most active in early-stage studies, with industry sponsoring only 22% of Phase 1 trials. But, in gene therapy, those initial human tests can hold more weight, as the benefits of a genetic fix can be quickly apparent.
"This is a sign that the model of drug development that was prominent in the past — academia does basic science and finds some targets and then pharma develops the actual drug product — is pretty different with gene therapy," one of the paper's authors, Walid Gellad, director of the Center for Pharmaceutical Policy and Prescribing at the University of Pittsburgh, wrote in an email to BioPharma Dive.
The changing academic model also raises questions about the rich price tags being sought by drugmakers for gene therapies, given the greater role played by universities and other non-profit entities.
"The paper, I think, informs discussions about how high prices really need to be in order to encourage private risk taking for gene therapies — it may be a different number than for other drugs that have less late stage involvement by academia and NIH," wrote Gellad.
Notable academic gene therapy spinouts
|University of Pennsylvania||Spark Therapeutics||Acquired by Roche for $4.8 billion to access rare eye disease drug Luxturna, experimental hemophilia therapy.|
|University of North Carolina||Asklepios BioPharmaceutical||Licensed technology to AveXis. Spun out Bamboo Therapeutics, which was acquired by Pfizer for a Duchenne muscular dystrophy therapy.|
|Nationwide Children's Hospital||AveXis||Acquired by Novartis for $8.7 billion to access spinal muscular atrophy drug Zolgensma.|
|University of Florida||AGTC||Signed $124 million eye disease license with Biogen, since terminated after clinical failure.|
|Nationwide Children's Hospital||Myonexus||Acquired by Sarepta Therapeutics for $165 million to access a muscular dystrophy drug.|
University involvement in gene therapy development was driven in part by the private sector's reluctance to get involved in a therapeutic approach perceived, until several years ago, as risky. The death of Jesse Gelsinger in a Penn gene therapy trial in 1999 inflicted severe reputational damage on the field, driving away drugmaker interest.
Scientists kept the faith, and their institutions carried the field forward for years afterward. When Swartley began working at Penn in 2007, one of his first meetings was with the university's gene therapy director James Wilson, who was in charge of the tragic trial that led to Gelsinger's death.
"From an external perspective, from an industrial perspective, there was almost nothing happening," he said. "But it was evident from the kind of research that Dr. Wilson and his colleagues were sharing with us, they made a very convincing case that this was going to rapidly shift into a more of a developmental paradigm."
"They were anticipating a tremendous amount of industry interest when that shift occurred," Swartley added. "It turned out to be very prophetic."
At the University of North Carolina, the situation was similar in the early part of the 2000s. The institution reached a slightly different solution, however, spinning out companies like Asklepios BioPharmaceutical to advance gene therapy beyond the walls of the university laboratories.
"We had a lot of vector technology, but the market was not receptive to gene therapy at the time," said Kelly Parsons, associate technology commercialization director at UNC, in an interview. "We had a startup company that had to work very diligently to try to establish the merits of gene therapy."
Asklepios is still an independent company today, some of its gene therapy work having been folded into a Pfizer-owned Duchenne muscular dystrophy project that was previously developed by Bamboo Therapeutics.
But the time spent building the knowledge and expertise at universities or closely affiliated startups has been one of the reasons why big pharmas have rushed into the space. By advancing the technology, the universities reduced the risk of failure, making pharmas more willing to buy in.
"We had a recognition that if we wanted the for-profit sector and the investment sector and the [venture capital] world to give gene therapy a chance, it was important as an institution we were able to start that process of de-risking the asset," said Matthew McFarland, vice president of commercialization and industry relations at Nationwide, in an interview.
Doing so was a greater commitment than they expected. "What we did is say: 'What stage would these assets need to get to before external dollars would be interested in investing?'" he said. "And the reality is, oh my gosh, you have to de-risk it all the way to the point it's ready to go into the patients."
That included the initial Phase 1 study of the spinal muscular atrophy gene therapy now known as Zolgensma, which was licensed to AveXis and later acquired by Novartis.
More broadly, development included building production capabilities compliant with Good Manufacturing Practices, which govern quality and consistency standards for finished drug products, and a regulatory team that was able to prepare Investigational New Drug applications within the hospital's technology transfer office.
Building up manufacturing expertise has resulted in a new business for Nationwide: the for-profit Andelyn Biosciences, which will run a commercial scale gene therapy production facility.
Solving the manufacturing question is something many academic gene therapy centers are still grappling with as they near the point of handing off to private-sector partners. Biopharma companies want to have confidence that the therapies manufactured by university scientists will work as well in clinical trials and in wider use as they did in earlier study.
"There's no university that has the ability to ramp their early production manufacturing production to a level to get enough doses … that industry doesn't have to recapitulate it," said Jim O'Connell, director of technology transfer at the University of Florida's UF Innovate, in an interview. "It's notorious for university labs, small molecules and others, to not be able to have their work reproduced out in the real world."
This very question may have been behind data quality issues for Zolgensma. Last summer, Novartis was chastised by the Food and Drug Administration for having submitted manipulated preclinical data, a scandal that the Swiss pharma tied to AveXis co-founder and former Nationwide trial investigator Brian Kaspar. Through his lawyer, Kaspar has denied all wrongdoing.
"Academic institutions have got to ask themselves: How far into this do we want to go?," said O'Connell. "It's going to have a whole bunch of costs that universities aren't used to taking on. How do we share the expense? How do we share the risk appropriately?"
Thorny questions notwithstanding, the increased investment has led to better returns for universities. Technology transfer offices interviewed by BioPharma Dive report the licensing deals are much richer for gene therapies that have advanced to human testing or near it — money which gets returned to scientists and their departments to fund new research.
Returns aren't equally shared, however. Schools blessed with research that is sought-after by private industry flourish, while others struggle, said Lee Vinsel, a Virginia Tech assistant professor who is writing a book called "The Innovator's Delusion."
Indeed, broadly speaking, universities reported a little more than $3 billion in licensing revenue in 2017, but spent $68 billion, according to the Association of University Technology Managers. Less than 1% of licenses yielded more than $1 million in revenue.
Moreover, Vinsel argues the potential for licensing revenue incentivizes universities to only conduct research the private sector wants to license.
"One reason why we need federal funding and university research is to do basic science that corporations aren't going to pay for and do," Vinsel said. "If we tack more university research towards the profitable, who is going to do this basic work, including research that could really help society but will enrich no one?"
McFarland of Nationwide, however, points to less lucrative licenses it has signed, such as a device to prevent pressure ulcers in patients with tracheostomies, along with a mental health research and treatment facility the institution has launched, as ventures that were enabled by bigger deals like in gene therapy.
"If we can take that return and continue to foster research not only in [gene therapy] but even further spread that out and have an impact across all of research," he said.
"There are a lot of times when we're not the office of tech commercialization, but instead we're the office of tech realization, because what we go into is just about getting it out there to the public, and we're not going to get a return on it."