In the massive brick and stone building where Model T Fords were once assembled, the University of Pittsburgh and UPMC are planning to do something similar with the immunotherapy treatments they develop.
From Model T’s that defined American industrialism, to immune T cells that are transforming cancer treatments, the two announced a collaboration to turn 5000 Baum Blvd. in Bloomfield into the UPMC Immune Transplant and Therapy Center — a modern-day method of turning drug development into an assembly-line process, of sorts.
In a novel approach, UPMC and Pitt plan to develop immunotherapy drugs and treatments and use UPMC’s $200 million investment to usher them through human clinical trials and the lengthy U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval process – an expensive process traditionally paid for by pharmaceutical companies.
In this case, they hope to develop drugs and control the entire testing and approval process, from the research benchtop to the patient’s bedside. That vast gulf between research and marketplace has been described as “the valley of death” from which few research projects emerge as successful treatments.
The two do emphasize the philanthropic aspect of developing new and improved treatments for cancer, autoimmune and inflammatory diseases along with way to slow down aging and avoid donor-organ rejection.
But there’s further focus on economic development and reaping the full financial benefits of drug development.
UPMC President and CEO Jeffrey Romoff said a Brookings Institution report said Pittsburgh has failed to cash in on the life sciences – the knowledge-base of its universities and health care systems. “We here at the University and at UPMC have every intention of cashing in, such that this partnership will bring not only cures, not only new therapies, but it will bring multibillion dollars of economic development,” Mr. Romoff said during a Tuesday news conference at the proposed new center.
He quickly departed the news conference and refused to take questions. But Pitt Chancellor Patrick D. Gallagher said the challenge for research universities is crossing that “valley of death” and turn good medical research into viable treatments. UPMC’s investment “will address that gap,” he said. “Today opens an exciting new chapter in our ability to partner with others to advance the University of Pittsburgh’s mission of using knowledge for society’s gain,” Mr. Gallagher said. “We are creating an unprecedented ecosystem — one that connects basic science discoveries from Pitt with life-changing advances from UPMC while leveraging the catalytic power of industry partners. “It’s a combination that will transform immunotherapy care and help us tackle some of medicine’s greatest challenges.”
Pitt and UPMC also will seek to transform the 200,000-square- foot building, constructed in 1915, into a fulcrum of an innovation district — economic development based on the life sciences, research and creative ideas in the Bloomfield, Shadyside area.
In that sense, there’s also hope the center will serve as a magnet that attracts “companies that want to be a cup of coffee away from the new center,” Mr. Gallagher said. Pitt has chosen Wexford Science + Technology LLC to transform the warehouse into a research center that also serves as a centerpiece of a new innovation district.
The Baltimore-based company works with universities, academic medical centers and major research institutions on creating innovation districts. UPMC originally purchased the building in 2006 for $10 million, with possible plans to make it a home for cancer research. It initially proposed to tear down the building and build a new one but encountered neighborhood opposition that succeeded in preserving it. Now, 12 years later, Pitt will assume the responsibility of converting the Ford warehouse into a research center.
Construction costs are not yet known, but Mr. Gallagher said it will cost $100 million and likely higher, with creation of 1,000 to 2,000 construction workers and a two-year timetable for completion. The result will be a “world-class space for labs, offices, startup companies and industry partners” with the major focus on medical research leading to new drugs and treatments in transplantation, cancer, autoimmunity, aging and chronic disease. There’s additional hope that research discoveries will generate spinoff companies, economic development and new jobs that Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said would involve “everyone from Ph.Ds. to GEDs,” referring to those who eventually earn high school diplomas.
The new center represents the latest in a string of announced health- based economic development in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. On Nov. 5, UPMC announced plans to invest $2 billion in specialty hospitals constructed at existing Pittsburgh hospitals, including a UPMC Vision and Rehabilitation Hospital, a 300,000-square- foot facility near UPMC Mercy in the city’s Uptown section; UPMC Heart and Transplant Hospital at UPMC Presbyterian, a 15-story 620-bed facility in Oakland; and UPMC Hillman Cancer Hospital at UPMC Shadyside, a 240,000- square-foot patient tower and 160,00-square- foot outpatient center, near UPMC Shadyside.
The Allegheny Health Network also announced more than $1 billion in construction plans last fall to develop a 160-bed acute-care center in Pine, along with four microhospitals throughout the Pittsburgh area, with additional investments in cancer care in Erie. Specifically, the new UPMC center will pinpoint “the most promising advances in immunology that are capable of enhancing human health” through “a concerted effort to harness the power of the human immune system to treat and cure a wide range of diseases,” a project release explains. UPMC and Pitt already have many immunotherapy research projects underway. Steven D. Shapiro, UPMC executive vice president, said six researchers already were successfully recruited to work at the new center and will be “empowered” to add to their staff, among other job opportunities.
The center is important, he said, because immunotherapy remains in its infancy, with new drugs already showing success in treating forms of lymphoma and leukemia and other cancers, although many challenges remain. “Definitely, the door is partially open and we want to kick it wide open,” he said.