It hasn’t been that long since Sanford was known as the Brick Capital of the World.
While that distinction hasn’t been true for some time — bricks are still produced here, of course, but the number is down from the nearly ten percent of all bricks made worldwide in the 1950s — brick’s legacy as a one time economic driver for Lee County is still more than evident. Businesses and nonprofits still make use of the title “brick city” or “brick capital;” and signage touting the fact was still visible a few short years ago.
Now, one company that’s been here in one form or another for several years may be spearheading a movement to make Sanford known for something else.
That something else is gene therapy, of which we’ll explore in detail a bit later. But gene therapy isn’t something that’s coming to Sanford — it’s already happening. Employees at Sanford’s Pfizer plant have been working on their iteration of the relatively new technology since 2017, when the company announced that it was investing $100 million in Lee County’s tax base by moving recently-acquired Bamboo Therapeutics from Chapel Hill to the Sanford campus. Bamboo — a gene therapy operation — set up about 40 employees in Sanford, a number which has since grown to about 100.
And a little more than two years later, the number of gene therapy employees at Pfizer is set to grow again, by an even larger factor — and without any new incentive from local government beyond the one from 2017. Pfizer announced in August that it would invest half a billion dollars in Lee County’s tax base to grow the gene therapy operation by up to 300 new employees.
That’s $600 million in tax base growth, and 400 new jobs, in less than three years.
Long story short, you don’t have to forget about bricks. But as far as world capitals, Sanford may very shortly be able to claim that distinction regarding gene therapy.
Pfizer’s gene therapy production takes place in three North Carolina locations — in Morrisville, where scientists work at a small scale to develop the process that may eventually be used in larger scale manufacturing, then in Chapel Hill, where that process is optimized and quality controlled, and finally, in Sanford, where — assuming FDA approval — the final process is implemented to make the product at a commercial scale.
Jobs at the Sanford campus range from manufacturing technicians who are specially trained to physically make the product and meticulously document results, engineers and maintenance technicians who will perform preventative maintenance on equipment and troubleshoot when things go wrong, quality control specialists who test raw materials used in production as well as the end product, and more.
These jobs will call for a mixture of education levels, including bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering, biology, or chemistry, as well as associate’s degrees in fields like biomanufacturing. In other words, there’s opportunity for a lot of folks.
Brian Merritt is Central Carolina Community College’s vice president for workforce development, and agrees that Pfizer’s recent announcement — and similar industry moves across the state — means there should be plenty of jobs available to locals who are interested. The college is responding in kind.
“We’re going through the search process right now to hire a lead instructor for a biotechnology program,” Merritt said, explaining that that person should be in place by January and the college is looking to first stand up short-term training opportunities at its Center for Workforce Innovation, with an eye toward developing an accredited program as soon as it is able.
“We had a bioprocessing program years ago, which went away,” he said. “But based on the chatter we’re hearing statewide and as we see these investments popping up, we’ve got to make sure that our training programs match the needs of industry. A lot of what we’re doing right now is essentially listening sessions with industry so we can develop the type of workers they’ll need.”
CCCC President Lisa Chapman said it’s all part of the college’s role not only in educating folks, but also helping the community attract a variety of employers who will drive the local economy.
“CCCC is an integral partner in economic development. We know that our role in addressing talent pipeline demand is increasingly more critical, as there is an increasing need for postsecondary credentials for today’s and tomorrow’s labor force,” she said. “The college will continue working closely with Pfizer and all of our workforce partners to address the industry needs as well as to support the economic mobility of our local citizens. We want to keep and attract community-engaged employers, such as Pfizer, and ensure that individuals in our communities are sufficiently prepared to earn family-sustaining wages.”
The story surrounding gene therapy is bigger than Pfizer, even. Jimmy Randolph is manager for existing industry development for the Sanford Area Growth Alliance, an organization that played as large a role as any in luring Pfizer’s gene therapy operation to Sanford back in 2017. He said Pfizer’s decision will have reverberations throughout the life sciences industry.
“When (life science industries) see a company like Pfizer making an investment in a community like Sanford, that gets their attention,” he said. “If the talent pool is in place, then we become a viable location for this industry.”
Randolph said SAGA has heard from other life science companies and wouldn’t be surprised at all to see a supply chain business for gene therapy development or even a different company with a similar product decide to set up shop locally.
“One obvious reason for others — and it doesn’t have to be competitors, just folks who work in the same sector or an adjacent sector — to look here is that we have the workforce,” he said.
Randolph also said these decisions have lasting impacts on a community, and not just in the workforce or economic sense.
“I’ve already seen some of it,” he said. “Just being out with the family, being downtown and going into shops or places like Hugger Mugger, we’re meeting people who are relatively new to Sanford, but they’ve already become involved and are offering their ideas on what we can do to keep making downtown better. Any time you diversify in this way, you’re going to have that kind of impact.”
So even if we know that gene therapy is set to change Lee County’s professional and economic landscape in the years to come, there’s still a big question for the layperson — just what the heck is it?
Speaking in broad terms, some diseases can be caused by a missing or faulty gene in the body and gene therapy attempts to put that genetic information back into patients’ bodies to treat the disease. That can be done in a lot of ways, so for simplicity’s sake this article will focus on the specific type of gene therapy happening at Pfizer’s North Carolina facilities, including the one in Sanford.
According to Patrick Bastek, Pfizer’s senior director of gene therapy process development, what happens in Sanford will be aimed at treating hemophilia and Duchenne’s Muscular Dystrophy and “is essentially gene addition.” That involves the infusion of a safe virus into a patient’s cells so that they’ll begin producing specific proteins that patients with these diseases don’t naturally produce. It’s both complicated and fascinating at once, and while Pfizer’s clinical programs at this time are in types of hemophilia, as well as DMD, the process can theoretically be used against a host of diseases.
“So I think one of the things that’s very exciting about gene therapy is the ability to treat diseases that haven’t been treated before or lead to an improvement in how these diseases are treated,” he explained, noting that one of the primary benefits is that it can drastically reduce the amount of treatment an afflicted person requires. “Instead of hemophilia patients having to sit down to get infused with product, with a drug twice a week, they are able to have a potentially one time treatment that hopefully lasts for years, if not their lifetime. And so the hope is that this treatment allows this person to avoid additional infusions for many years to come.”
Also of note is that Pfizer, and before it Wyeth, has largely been known in the area for its efforts at manufacturing vaccines. What makes that interesting is that despite its use of a virus for delivery of a piece of DNA, gene therapy is essentially the opposite of a vaccine in that the AAV isn’t designed to create an immune response.
“So the way vaccines work is you will give a patient either live weakened bacteria, or dead bacteria, or pieces of it such that the body’s defense mechanism recognizes that as foreign and generates an immune response against it,” he said. “This particular method, the viral vector is chosen because your body will have a low preexisting immunity to it, which means it won’t get stopped in its tracks before it reaches where it’s trying to go. And it’s designed to essentially deliver that DNA to the desired cells.”
Gene therapy is also relatively new, dating back to the 1970s, and the kind of AAV gene therapy Pfizer is working on in Sanford was only discovered in the late 90s. Much of the work that’s been done since that time has been in academia, with clinical trials beginning to show success over the last five years.
“Once the promise was really seen about four years ago, this is when pharmaceutical players like Pfizer have jumped into the game to figure out, okay, how do we really tap the promise of this and take some of these products all the way through the licensure?” Bastek said.