Pharmaceutical giantBristol Myers Squibb has been quietly growing in the Seattle area.
Since acquiring Celgene and its Seattle operations two years ago, BMS now has more than 1,240 employees in the region, hundreds more than when the deal was announced.
BMS brings strong pharmaceutical influence and a portion of its $ 9.2 billion annual research and development budget to Seattle’s thriving biotech ecosystem, where global anchor pharmaceutical companies have been as rare as Bigfoot since Amgen closed its Seattle hub ago. five years.
Only Bothell, Washington-based Seagen, with more than 2,500 employees worldwide, can surpass BMS in size among biopharmaceutical companies in the Seattle area. BMS has more than 150 Open positions in the region, competing with Sana Biotechnology, Umoja Biopharma and other gene and cell therapy biotech companies for workers.
BMS outpost in the Seattle area, dedicated to cellular therapy and immuno-oncology, is one of the about a dozen BMS R&D centers around the world. Its scientists are developing new ways to attack tumors by harnessing cells of the immune system and are improving two “CAR T” cell therapies approved for certain blood cancers, Breyanzi and Abecma.
Breyanzi grew out of research at Seattle’s flagship cell therapy biotech company Juno Therapeutics, which Celgene acquired in 2018 in a multi-million dollar deal. BMS continues the partnerships Juno forged with Fred Hutch and the Seattle Children’s Research Institute when Juno spun off these institutions, and is building new biotechnology collaborations to develop the next generation of therapies.
BMS ‘leading effort in Seattle is Teresa foy, who previously led Celgene’s Seattle operations and rose through the ranks as an executive at two small Seattle biotech companies, VLST Corp and Oncofactor.
“Our presence here is strong,” Foy told GeekWire in an interview. “We are hiring and we are growing.”
BMS’s footprint in the region includes a 266,000-square-foot R&D facility in Seattle built by Juno, and a manufacturing facility in Bothell, where the company manufactures Breyanzi.
The Seattle operation oversees clinical trials for Breyanzi and other cell therapies. BMS, for example, aims to expand the pool of patients eligible for Breyanzi, which is currently approved for adults with certain types of lymphoma who have relapsed or are unresponsive after two first-line therapies. BMS recently released data supporting expansion of therapy to patients at an earlier stage of treatment.
BMS aims to reduce the cost of manufacturing CAR T cells, adding to the high cost of treatment. The manufacturing process currently involves designing a patient’s own cells to attack their tumor. Instead, one option is to allow the use of a “ready-to-use” therapy, derived from healthy donor cells.
The next generation of cell therapies is also being built in Seattle. The company is engineering CAR T cells to overcome a hostile tumor environment and recognize more than one molecular target. This research aims to counteract the development of resistance to treatment and expand therapy to solid tumors. BMS is also making headway in “TCR engineered” T cells that can target molecules within tumor cells, not just on the cell surface as with CAR T cells.
BMS is also looking beyond cell therapies at “immune cell activators.” These are agents that interact with immune cells and direct them to recognize and attack cancer cells. BMS has several of these agents in phase 1 clinical trials for blood cancers and solid tumors.
We spoke with Foy about the growth of the company and his vision for treating cancer with the immune system.
The interview with Foy below has been edited for clarity and brevity.
GeekWire: What do you think has kept BMS in the Seattle region?
Teresa Foy, Executive of Bristol Myers Squibb: With the acquisition, BMS hired the CEO of Celgene Rupert vessey as its president of early research and development. They really liked their research model, and BMS needed some kind of update on their research strategy. Vessey had helped build a distributed research model, with different centers of innovation, and each of those centers has a different area of focus.
Part of what BMS recognized in the acquisition was that this was an important concept to keep intact, not just for Seattle, but for the other centers as well. This was not traditionally how BMS operated its research. They were very centrally located in New Jersey, but now they have embraced this model. It takes advantage of different locations for hiring and also allows you to tap into local region ecosystems for academic experience, other small businesses to partner with, as well as talent.
BMS wants to maintain the core expertise that is here and the critical mass of people to develop cell therapy. It takes time to develop that experience and that experience. Being able to retain that and grow that here in Seattle is a real strength for us.
How is the cell therapy ecosystem in Seattle reinforcing your work? Do regional companies benefit as potential collaborators?
Foy: We certainly have a lot of academic history here in Seattle with Seattle Children’s, with Fred Hutch, and we still have those relationships. The talent pool has been shared across the region, and that’s great for the Seattle ecosystem.
We have partnerships and equity investments in some of the local businesses. [BMS investments include Presage Biosciences, Zymeworks, Silverback Therapeutics, and Lyell Immunopharma, which are based in the Seattle area or have operations there]. But we currently don’t have great collaborations with any [local] companies. Part of the reason is that some of our programs are competitive with each other. The cycle of technology and innovation continues and we continue to have conversations with Sana, Lyell and other startups.
We have partnerships with people from all over the country and the world. But Seattle is something of a center of excellence for cell therapies. Certainly, people across the country acknowledge that a strong foundation was built here with Juno expanding and now seeded a ton of new businesses. I think it is an advantage for everyone because it brings talent here. It brings great scientific discussions and opportunities for collaboration.
He works in a field at the forefront of cancer research. What excites you for the future?
Foy: I think progress will be exponential in the next five to 10 years because there has been a lot of innovation in technology and in bioinformatics, machine learning and artificial intelligence, which can help inform all the data we collect from our patients. We can learn a lot from feedback to improve the first generations of cell therapies. Technology is advancing at a frantic rate.
I am excited that we can expand what we have learned in hematology, lymphoma, and myeloma to solid tumors. And then we’ll also have to apply what we learned in the immuno-oncology space with checkpoint inhibitors. [immune modulating cancer drugs like BMS’ nivolumab]. What resistance mechanisms prevent checkpoint inhibitors from having longer effects or what prevents some patients from responding? Some of those same topics hold true for cell therapies.
How are your research collaborations building the next generation of cell therapies?
Foy: We have a partnership with Arsenal Bio, which is developing “logic gates” for solid tumors. [enabling activation of therapeutic cells only within a tumor or under other conditions]. Obsidian Therapeutics Regulates Protein Expression – we are adding particular proteins to our cell therapies that we can regulate to activate just when we want, primarily for solid tumors to overcome the challenges of the tumor environment. And then we have a partnership with Immatics, which has identified T-cell receptors engineered for solid tumor targets, and we’re putting them into our cell therapies. So a lot is happening with the next generation.
We are working on a couple of different approaches to commercially available cell therapies. Allogeneic approaches [therapies from donor cells] are in the queue for CD19 and BCMA [the targets of Breyanzi and Abecma]. And then far away we’re seeing other things like iPSC [stem-cell] derivative therapies. We don’t have an association there yet, but we are working to explore that.
Can you tell us about your other research efforts?
Foy: Approximately 30% of our portfolio is focused on immune cell activators. These complement the cell therapy modality. They have some advantages in that they could be made available on the market, perhaps giving access to more patients. But obviously, you can’t put as much stuff in these biologics as you can in cell therapy. So it’s a good breadth for our portfolio to have options with both.
Any highlights of your clinical programs?
Foy: CD19 and BCMA CAR T cells [Breyanzi and Abecma] They are in a next generation of manufacturing. And those essentially have a similar design but a different manufacturing process. [that generates cells to persist longer in the body]. We entered a CAR T cell against a novel target, GPRC5D, for multiple myeloma, and that is now in phase 1. Behind that we have a CAR ROR1 T cell – we will enroll patients early next year for that program, and That will be in chronic lymphocytic leukemia initially and then solid tumors after that.
What has it been like for you to go from small biotech companies to Celgene and then to BMS?
Foy: I grew up as a bench scientist and gradually became a leader and then a chief science officer. I thought, ‘I’m not sure I like big business,’ but I found that doing good science is doing good science, regardless of whether you are in a small business or a large business. But being able to have the resources to do it really well, and really see patients benefit from it, was a huge and rewarding part.
Any final words?
Foy: We are really excited about the transition to solid tumors in the next five to 10 years and also looking for ways to make these cell therapies more affordable and available from donors. I think that’s really the next generation of where cell therapies will go.
We are also very proud of the community outreach we have done and our STEM efforts in Washington State. They are a really important part of our mission here. [BMS is involved in outreach programs at the Pacific Science Center and other efforts]. Our staff is truly excited to help mentor and educate the next generation of young scientists and hopefully keep the Seattle and Washington state ecosystem thriving with the scientists of the future.