SANFORD (Aug. 9, 2017) – UNC Chapel Hill and biopharmaceutical giant Pfizer offered a textbook example this week of the value of university research – and not just in Research Triangle Park.

Pfizer and Gov. Roy Cooper announced that Pfizer will invest $100 million in expansion of its facilities in Sanford to build on research at UNC Chapel Hill and produce new gene therapy treatments.  The company will also create 40 jobs.

“North Carolina is one of the few places in the country with the biotech resources to take an idea all the way from the lab to the manufacturing line,” Cooper said.

“Pfizer’s investment in Lee County is a prime example of how North Carolina’s world-class universities and cutting-edge industries work together to move our state forward.”1

Gene therapy targets cells that have defective genes; it delivers a corrected copy of the gene to compensate for the defective one.  Though no gene therapy drugs are on the market yet, many are in clinical trials.  They will be used to target diseases such as muscular dystrophy that result from a single defective gene, said Dr. Terry Magnuson, vice chancellor for research at UNC Chapel Hill.

“This is 25 years in the making,” Magnuson said, singling out the work of Dr. Jude Samulski at the UNC Gene Therapy Center.  “We’re getting close.”

In 2016, Pfizer acquired Bamboo Therapeutics, Inc., a biotech spinoff from Chapel Hill that focused on developing gene therapies for treatment of rare neuromuscular conditions and conditions affecting the central nervous system. In Sanford, Pfizer is adding a manufacturing facility that will enable it to produce large quantities.

Magnuson said gene therapy holds great promise for modifying the effects of terrible diseases. “This is the next step in bringing this type of treatment to fruition,” he said.

“We are excited that Carolina’s research will improve lives and create jobs for North Carolinians,” said Chancellor Carol Folt.

“This is a perfect example of how placing innovation at the center of our university creates new opportunities.…  Gene therapy is a strength at Carolina and we look forward to continue to help advance this industry.”

As part of the agreement announced this week, Pfizer also will provide $4 million to support postdoctoral fellowships in gene therapy at North Carolina universities.2

FIRST AND FOREMOST, university biomedical research helps patients who suffer from often dreadful conditions – nearly 40 percent of us will suffer from cancer at some point in our lives, for example.3

The Pfizer announcement is just the latest illustration of the economic impact of that research – what Folt refers to as “a biomedical juggernaut” encompassing UNC’s Schools of Medicine, Pharmacy and Public Health and its Chemistry Department.

The University Cancer Research Fund was launched by the NC General Assembly in 2007 to promote research at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.  It grew to $50 million a year before legislators reduced state funding to $42 million in 2013.

In 2014-15 alone, the fund created an economic impact of $348.8 million – an 8-to-1 return on investment.  It has helped launch 33 startup companies and generated a total economic impact of $1.69 billion since inception.4  Cooper proposed restoring the fund to its full $50 million this year,5 but legislators declined.

Life-changing research doesn’t occur only at UNC Chapel Hill, though – the College of Engineering at NC State is worthy of a similar investment, for example.

Whether it’s a hypoallergenic peanut developed at NC A&T6 or self-powered medical devices,7 flame-retardant fabric8 and drug-detecting nail polish developed at State,9 they’re all worthy of our support.

2 Ibid.
3, p. 2.
4 Ibid, pp. 5-9.
5, p. 59.

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