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Pitt will build a $100M biomanufacturing and research hub at Hazelwood Green

UPMC_Microneedle-Array_University of Pittsburgh_lab_research_needle_test tube.jpg
Courtesy of UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh
Pitt BioForge will provide a home for emerging technologies and therapies to be manufactured and used in clinical trials.

The University of Pittsburgh will build a massive biomanufacturing facility at Hazelwood Green thanks to a $100 million gift from the Richard King Mellon Foundation.

The project, known as Pitt BioForge, will bring every stage of life science innovation under one roof to develop new cell and gene therapies and other treatments and products, according to the university.

“Pittsburgh is poised to become the next global hub for life sciences and biotech, and this gift propels us on that path like never before,” said Anantha Shekhar, senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, in a press release announcing the gift.

Pitt BioForge will provide a home for emerging technologies and therapies to be manufactured and used in clinical trials. This means emerging biological therapies could be developed and launched entirely from Pittsburgh.

The facility will fill the existing gap between emerging research at Pitt and clinical trials at UPMC, according to Chancellor Patrick Gallagher.

“This is going to turn research knowledge into products,” he said. “The missing ingredient was the commercial anchor. The ability to manufacture and produce…these new biological therapies like cells and viral vectors for gene therapy and monoclonal antibodies,” he said.

Having a manufacturing hub geographically close to research is key, Gallagher said. Modified cell tissue doesn’t travel as well as the steel and metal products that used to be manufactured in the same neighborhood.

“These fragile cell lines, you want to be right next to the hospital systems that are delivering these things. And it helps if you can be right near the research teams that are modifying those cells.”

Pitt research poised to relocate to BioForge includes gene and engineered cell therapy, the development of micro and nano-antibodies and delivery technologies.

Gallagher said Pitt will waste no time getting started on building the lab, with a goal to have it up and running by 2025 or 2026.

Dr. Leah Byrne, assistant professor of ophthalmology at Pitt, said if her research moved into Pitt BioForge, therapies could roll out faster and more efficiently. Byrne develops gene therapy for inherited retinal diseases that cause blindness.

“Our goal really is to translate the therapies that we’re making in the laboratory into a clinical setting,” she said. "And one of the major bottlenecks in the field is definitely production.”

Therapies and products that come out of Pitt BioForge will be delivered at UPMC specialty hospital systems. Physicians and researchers will be able to work hand in hand in developing and testing new products.

But, Gallagher notes, the health system will also counsel Pitt BioForge on how to set prices for its products.

“We’ve all seen sort of shocking stories about the cost of these deliveries. UPMC is also a payer system, so it could negotiate insurance and reimbursement coverage,” he said.

UPMC applauded the announcement Wednesday.

“We look forward to offering our bench-to-bedside expertise and unique clinical perspectives to continue developing new technologies and novel treatments that will revolutionize medical care,” said Leslie Davis, president and CEO of UPMC.

The $100 million gift is the largest given to a single project in the Mellon foundation’s history. The university will get $10 million per year over the next decade.

Sam Reiman, director of the Richard King Mellon Foundation, said the gift emphasizes the foundation’s long-term interest in making Pittsburgh a hub for biomedical innovation. That goal, Reiman said, has been highlighted during the pandemic.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced a shortage of monoclonal antibodies and moved to ration states’ supplies.

“What COVID did in this instance was just to reinforce this idea of the importance of manufacturing in your own backyard,” he said.

The 200,000- to 250,000-square-foot facility will be built near the historic Mill 19 site, which is currently occupied by Carnegie Mellon University’s Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute and Manufacturing Futures Initiative as well as self-driving vehicle company Aptiv.

“The old mills used to transport molten steel across the Hot Metal Bridge, and now [you will] have cancer therapeutics being made and transported up the hill to patients,” said Reiman.

Reiman expects Pitt BioForge to become a pillar of the growing entrepreneurial ecosystem at the Hazelwood Green development and to help keep new technologies and companies coming out of Pitt in southwest Pennsylvania.

Shekhar agreed.

“The talent we have in this region is unmatched,” said Shekhar. “Our shared vision for building a meds and eds innovation engine with UPMC, industry and the Hazelwood community will spur new solutions and opportunities for generations to come.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.
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