CU Anschutz center for cell-based therapy gets $200 million expansion

An existing center on the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus that helps develop treatments based on patients’ own cells is getting a $200 million boost, with the hope of getting those treatments to the public faster.

Chancellor Don Elliman said the Anschutz campus and the Gates Frontiers Fund will each invest $20 million per year over the next five years to turn the existing Gates Center for Regenerative Medicine into the significantly larger Gates Institute.

The Gates Frontiers Fund is affiliated with the Gates Family Foundation, a Colorado-based nonprofit, and is not connected to Bill Gates’ foundation.

The fund and the campus in Aurora also have partnered on a manufacturing facility that reprograms patients’ immune cells to fight certain cancers. Elliman said they don’t expect to need a new building for the institute’s expanded work.

Regenerative medicine is a broad term for treatments that try to harness the body’s ability to fix itself. That could involve reprogramming cells to replace dying tissue or fight cancer, or therapies that insert a healthy gene to replace a defective version that’s causing disease.

It’s early enough in the process that the institute’s leadership hasn’t chosen specific focus areas under the regenerative medicine umbrella.

Most of the $200 million will go toward hiring scientists, as well as support personnel to help both the new researchers and those already working on campus, Elliman said.

Once the institute is up and running, it will bring in new federal grants to support research and investment from biotech firms that can bring the treatments to market, he said.

“This investment is really a seed investment,” he said.

Dr. Terry Fry, the institute’s executive director, said it’s meant to help scientists with ideas that show promise in the lab to take the steps toward testing them in humans.

The process of manufacturing treatments and getting trials approved is more complex for biologic therapies than for standard drugs, he said.

“There’s a stage in the development of that sort of project where investigator-scientists run up against a brick wall,” he said. “A lot of the role that I see the institute playing is removing those barriers.”

Fry, a pediatric oncologist, was one of the first researchers who worked on chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) therapy — the immune cell reprogramming therapy. It was approved first for children with leukemia, but now is also used for adults and for other blood cancers, like lymphoma and myeloma. He declined to name specific projects the institute would work on, but said potential improvements to CAR-T could be within its scope.

The therapy takes a kind of T-cell that kills cells infected with viruses or bacteria, and gets it to attack cancerous cells instead. While it has improved survival for people with certain blood cancers, it doesn’t work well against solid tumors at this point. It also requires taking T-cells from each patient to produce their own treatment, which is expensive and slows down the process. Researchers are working on how to make CAR-T work for more people, and to create an “off the shelf” option, Fry said.

Another general area the institute could work on is growing cells to replace ones that have died or are defective, Fry said. Much of that work involves adult stem cells that have been coaxed back into an earlier form, when they could become almost any type of cell under the right conditions.

For example, if the stem cells can be primed to turn into cells producing insulin, that could help patients with Type 1 diabetes, which is caused when the insulin-producers die, he said.

“It is really remarkable technology,” he said.

The institute won’t take down every hurdle to bringing new treatments to patients, Fry said. Manufacturing and distributing at a large scale will require partnerships with biotech firms, which fortunately are setting up in the Denver area in increasing numbers, he said.

“I think this is the right time and exactly the right part of the country” for this type of institute, he said.

Diane Gates Wallach, one of the Gates fund’s co-trustees, said the new institute will further her father’s goal of speeding up the process of getting new discoveries into clinical practice, so patients can benefit. Since the Anschutz campus includes researchers and two hospitals, it made sense to invest there, she said in a news release.

“It takes a dynamic, innovative medical ecosystem for an institute like this to thrive and be successful,” she said.

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