Huge breakthroughs are being made in the biotechnology research field that could change the future of cancer care and, incidentally, many of these are taking place in Santa Monica’s backyard.
In a movement spurred by the locally-based biotech company Kite, a growing number of biotech businesses and research institutions are setting up shop in the City, creating exciting benefits for the local economy as well as for students, job seekers, and patients.
Biotechnology utilizes living organisms to develop new products and has rapidly expanded in the past several decades thanks to the new possibility to make changes in organisms’ genetic material.
Santa Monica is becoming a hub for a type of biotech research known as cell therapy, where cells can be grown and genetically engineered and then injected into patients to generate a medicinal effect. Local research has already achieved significant results in using engineered T cells to fight cancer.
At the forefront of this research is Kite a Gilead Company, which employs 1,400 people across its Santa Monica headquarters and El Segundo manufacturing facilities.
“What’s unique about cell therapy is that Southern California is now becoming this cradle of technology for patients and I’m very excited for what this means for the region, Santa Monica, as well as for patients,” said Chuck Calderaro, SVP & Global Head of Technical Operations at Kite. “It also creates a competitive environment where we’re competing to be first, we’re competing to innovate, and we also compete for talent.”
From Calderaro’s perspective, the competition that results from a geographic concentration of similar companies is a good thing as it drives motivation and spurs on research.
This sentiment is echoed by the COO of biotech company Neogene Therapeutics Brent Pfeiffenberger. Neogene recently established its US headquarters in Santa Monica and was attracted by the existing talent pool, expertise and manufacturing facilities.
“Competition in my mind is very healthy, I do think it helps advance science more quickly and, at the end of the day, we’re all trying to achieve better ways to help more patients,” said Pfeiffenberger. “At Neogene we’re trying to build on those scientific breakthroughs that companies like Kite have pioneered in the next generation of fully personalized engineered T cell therapies across a really broad spectrum of cancers.”
While the local biotech industry is competitive it is also inherently collaborative. For example, companies often partner with academic institutions and hospitals to test their research in a clinical setting.
Providence St. John’s Hospital is closely involved in cell therapy research. Their T cell research applies to several types of cancerous tumors while their stem cell research applies to patients with strokes, traumatic brain injury and dementia.
“I think we should continue to support cell therapy from a City perspective and an LA perspective, in order to encourage more companies to innovate from our academic institutions locally, and also as a hub for future companies to want to move here because of the local expertise available,” said Dr. Santosh Kesari, chair and professor of the Department of Translational Neuro-oncology at Saint John’s Cancer Institute.
Larger companies also collaborate with start-ups in the field to help bring research plans to fruition faster. Kite recently signed a partnership with start-up Shoreline Biosciences for their cell therapy research targeted at leukemia and lymphoma.
“We see these young companies having great science and great ideas, but what they lack potentially is the capital infrastructure and clinicians to advance the programs through clinical development and commercialization,” said Calderaro. “That’s one of the strengths that we have at Kite, that we can help other companies be successful, which is great for patients, good for Kite, and good for a partner company like Shoreline.”
The rapid growth of Santa Monica’s biotech industry is also beneficial to local students and job seekers. Santa Monica College is working on several initiatives to help students take advantage of this, including a unique biotechnology program that is aiming to launch in fall 2022.
This development is led by Dr. Andria P. Denmon and Dr. Tom Chen and aims to increase the access low-income students and students of color have to this growing field. It was inspired by Denmon’s personal experience being one of the few women of color in her research field.
“Through this program we seek to provide our students with greater access to the life science/biotech industry, which will lead to increased opportunities for networking with potential employers and access to cutting edge instrumentation not often available to students at two-year institutions,” said Denmon. “Moreover, Dr. Chen and I wanted to provide our students from these often untapped pools of talent with an additional pathway for social upward mobility.”
The program is funded through the California State Chancellor’s Office Strong Workforce Program, which offers grants for community colleges to build programs that create a high-wage high-skill workforce.
SMC is also developing a biotechnology industry advisory board with these funds and is encouraging local employers who are interested in serving to reach out to their faculty. Additionally, SMC is seeking partners in the cell and gene therapy industry to provide internship opportunities for students in the upcoming biotech program.
Kite, which is one of the biggest employers in Santa Monica, already works with SMC through job fairs and makes efforts to hire locally.
“I think a partnership with Santa Monica College to develop a biotechnology program would be fabulous,” said Calderaro. “There’s a lot of entrepreneurial ambitious students at the local colleges. That gives me confidence in Santa Monica’s potential as a growing biopharmaceutical hub, not just for cell therapy, but for modalities across biotechnology.”