Hopes run high in Philadelphia that the region — the scientific home of two of the first cell and gene therapies approved by the FDA — will remain a major player as the cutting-edge treatments assume a bigger role in medicine.
To make that happen, Philadelphia’s life sciences industry will need not just scientists, management, and money, but also skilled workers to help laboratories run smoothly at an ever-growing number of biotech companies in the region and eventually to manufacture cures and treatments for rare diseases and elusive types of cancer.
To help build that skilled workforce, the Wistar Institute, the University City District’s West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, and partners have launched a new biomedical technician training program.
It will enroll 18 students in a 12-week paid training program at Wistar, potentially followed by an additional 10 weeks of hands-on work at Iovance Biotherapeutics Inc. in the Navy Yard — and then a $23-an-hour manufacturing job. Iovance, which now employs 150 people in Philadelphia, is developing cancer treatments using cell therapy.
Iovance did not say how many of the trainees it would hire. Iovance officials will interview them after they complete the Wistar part of the training.
“We expect to have a number of opportunities to which program participants can apply,” Tracy Winton, Iovance’s senior vice president for human resources, said in a statement.
A new industry
Cell and gene therapies are still in the early stages of development, but Philadelphia scientists have long played a central part. Luxturna, a gene therapy cure for a rare form of congenital blindness, and Kymriah, a cell therapy treatment for some forms of leukemia, are based on the work of Philadelphia scientists. Both received FDA approval in 2017.
Cell therapy uses modified cells to carry treatment into the body. Gene therapy involves the replacement of defective genes that cause what are typically rare diseases.
The new training effort, scheduled to start Sept. 22, builds on one started in 2000 at Wistar, a nonprofit biomedical research institute in University City, in partnership with Community College of Philadelphia. The original Wistar program, which provided general preparation for work in biotech and until this year was spread over two summers for each cohort, has graduated 196 students.
Recruitment for the new program, which Wistar designed to specifically prepare individuals for jobs at Iovance, started Aug. 23 and runs through Friday. As of last Friday morning, 263 people had applied, according to the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative (WPSI), which for a decade has been training Philadelphians for specific jobs at individual employers, such as Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and SEPTA.
WPSI is handling recruitment selection for the Iovance training. The selection process for the 18 open spots includes an assessment of mathematical ability and an interview, said Cait Garozzo, managing director of WPSI.
“Some folks, obviously, are very desperate for a job, any job, and we’re not trying to connect people that just want any job to this opportunity. We’re trying to connect people that want a career in this industry to this opportunity,” Garozzo said.
This is the first time WPSI and Wistar have worked together. Other supporters are the Chamber of Commerce of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp.
“If this is successful, we really think this could be a game changer for this region,” said Kristy Shuda McGuire, dean for biomedical studies at Wistar. “We think this is something we could repeat. We could have more cohorts each year if there are single employers who are interested in this and have a lab-based position and would be interested in taking a whole cohort.”
The total budget for the training program was not disclosed.
Wistar’s track record
Wistar’s original training program — which expanded this year to include Montgomery County Community College and will be open to students at Bucks County Community College and Camden County College next year — typically sends graduates into biotech jobs or on to further education, McGuire said.
Among the graduates of the Wistar program that have gone on to build careers in life sciences is Lois Tovinsky, 36, who completed the program in 2013 and is now laboratory operations manager for Chimeron Bio, a biotech start-up in the Curtis Building that is working on RNA therapeutics against cancer.
Tovinsky graduated from college with a degree in political science in 2008, when the economy collapsed and jobs were hard to find. She heard about the Wistar program in a science class at Community College of Philadelphia and saw it as a chance to fulfill her interest in science and leap from her job as a dog walker into a science career.
“I came to the program with no practical skills in the lab, and my knowledge of science was really just the few courses I had taken and my own interest and enthusiasm that I had for it,” said Tovinsky, who now mentors students in the Wistar program.
Tylier Driscoll, 21, a biology major at Community College of Philadelphia, was one of 15 students in the Wistar training cohort that finished early last month.
“I definitely wanted to do something over the summer that wasn’t working at Aldi,” Driscoll said. “Before this, I hadn’t had any lab experience and I really wanted to get a feel for what it was like to work in a lab. I was working at a supermarket at the time. This is the perfect opportunity for me to get into my field.”
As part of his training, he spent five weeks working at BioAnalysis LLC, a contract research organization in Kensington that performs quality analysis on the viruses used in gene therapy.
Now, Driscoll has a part-time job at BioAnalysis that he starts Tuesday, the same day he goes back to CCP for the fall semester. He plans to finish his associate degree in the spring and then attend either Drexel University or Temple University for his bachelor’s degree.
Lake Paul, the president and founder of BioAnalysis, which he called a minority-owned biotech, said the Wistar program is an awesome opportunity and one that reminds him of his own experience. Paul said he grew up in the “hood” in Miami and wouldn’t have obtained his doctorate at Purdue University without the Upward Bound programs that helped him pursue education.
“It is a wonderful, exciting, and unique opportunity for these students, both underrepresented folks and regular folks. And to give them actual training like this is unparalleled,” said Paul.