The $100 million grant put forth toward the Pitt BioForge plant is the largest-ever single project grant from Pittsburgh's Richard King Mellon Foundation. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

$100M Grant ‘A Historic Bet’ on Pittsburgh’s Life Sciences Future

A $100 million grant for a University of Pittsburgh biomanufacturing facility—the largest single project grant Pittsburgh’s Richard King Mellon Foundation has ever made—will put Pittsburgh at the global forefront of bioengineering and biomedical research, foundation and university officials say.

“The foundation is making a historic bet on Pittsburgh to lead nationally in the life sciences,” foundation director Sam Reiman said.

The grant will help build Pitt BioForge, a biomanufacturing facility on an old steel mill site and onetime brownfield in Pittsburgh’s Hazelwood neighborhood, a few miles from the city’s downtown.

“We were the city that built the world. Now Pittsburgh can be the city that heals the world,” Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said, referring to the city’s decades as a center of heavy industry, still its reputation to some of the world.

More biotech startups expected

Pitt BioForge, to be constructed over the next five years, will leverage biomedical research conducted at Pitt and clinical care offered at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) to new manufacturing enterprises.

It’s not unlike the many startup robotics and self-driving car companies that grew out of research at Carnegie Mellon University. In May, the Foundation awarded a $150 million grant to Carnegie Mellon for two projects—$75 million for a robotics innovation center and an institute focused on advanced materials and manufacturing at the same Hazelwood site and $75 million for a new cutting-edge science building on the university’s campus in Pittsburgh.

Located in Hazelwood, Pitt’s BioForge project will transform a former mill site into a world-class biotech facility. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

Pitt is a major player in biomedical research and treatments. With nearly $1 billion in research-related funding annually, including more than $570 million in National Institutes of Health grants in 2020, Pitt ranks among the top 20 universities worldwide for the number of U.S. patents issued.

Over the last five years, Pitt researchers, faculty and students launched 87 startup companies based on university technology, were granted 503 U.S. patents, filed 1,768 invention disclosures and obtained $46.7 million in revenue from technology transfer activities.

Yet while the university has long been involved in gene therapy, it has never had a facility to manufacture such products on a large scale, university officials say. Treatments have been available to only a handful of patients at any time.

Faster, cheaper treatments

The planned 200,000- to 250,000-square-foot facility benefits researchers like Leah Byrne, assistant professor of ophthalmology and expert on gene therapy. Byrne’s research aims to restore sight to patients using engineered viruses to deliver snippets of DNA directly to cells in the retina to treat a wide variety of diseases.

“One of the major bottlenecks in bringing gene therapies to the clinic is actually producing clinical-grade viral vectors. It’s a huge problem,” she said. “The Pitt BioForge is going to allow us to actually produce the therapies we’re developing here and then hopefully bring those forward to clinical trials.”

A costly process with long wait times, manufacturing the key components of therapies has meant contracting with a small number of specialized facilities elsewhere. Currently, no facility in Pittsburgh, and only a select few worldwide, can create the required tools at the scale Byrne needs.

“Pitt researchers are already making discoveries in basic and clinical sciences targeting a wide range of diseases, and our new biomanufacturing facility will represent an important new way we can collaborate with our partners at UPMC and industry to bring those treatments to patients,” said Anantha Shekhar, senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and dean of Pitt’s School of Medicine. “It’s one more step toward establishing Pittsburgh as a world-class city for the life sciences.”

Working with the teams manufacturing the tools used in advanced therapies will also avoid wasted effort and lower costs, the university’s chair of ophthalmology, Jose Alain Sahel, said.

“Being fully engaged in the manufacturing process and being able to really monitor what’s going on is key for success and would enable a process that is efficient, safe, reliable, adaptive and cost effective,” he said.

The BioForge announcement came just a few months before Pitt plans to open The Assembly, a $330 million project in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield neighborhood that turned a former Ford Motor Co. plant into a cancer research facility.

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