The North Carolina Biotechnology Center has announced the inaugural class of Pfizer-NCBiotech Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellows in Gene Therapy.

The Fellows include Charles Askew, Carlos Cruz-Teran, Lauriel Earley and Sara Powell of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Hye Ri Kang and Adrian Pickar of Duke University. Their selection as Fellows entitles them to receive two-year awards valued at up to $190,340 per person.

The awards will enable the Fellows to conduct research in the laboratories of gene therapy-related investigators at their respective North Carolina universities. (More information about the Fellows, including their photos, mentors, and research project titles, is available on the NCBiotech website.)

Early in 2017 Pfizer Inc. (NYSE: PFE) committed funding in the amount of $4 million to enable NCBiotech to establish and administer the multi-year academic fellowship program to accelerate North Carolina’s fast-growing expertise in gene therapy.

Absent or faulty proteins linked to genetic mutations cause numerous devastating diseases, making the development of gene therapies that can correct these mutations an important treatment strategy. In fact, the FDA approved the second of two gene therapy-based treatments as recently as October 2017.

This program supports exceptional early-career scientists in North Carolina who will work toward the development of potential new gene therapy approaches and applications. Funding from Pfizer will support Fellow salaries, benefits, materials, professional development and travel. Additionally, NCBiotech has created specialized professional development modules to provide the Fellows with non-laboratory training in FDA regulations related to biological therapies, project management, leadership, scalable manufacturing of gene therapy products, intellectual property and entrepreneurship.

Pfizer’s portfolio in North Carolina has grown in recent years. In August 2016, Pfizer acquired leading-edge Chapel Hill gene therapy company Bamboo Therapeutics, Inc. (“Bamboo”). Pfizer also has a major pharmaceutical manufacturing facility in the Lee County community of Sanford that the company is now expanding with a $100 million investment, specifically targeting gene therapy product manufacturing with the expected addition of approximately 40 employees.

With its acquisition of Bamboo, Pfizer gained the expertise of Bamboo’s world-renowned co-founder, R. Jude Samulski, Ph.D., former director of the UNC Gene Therapy Center. The deal also included Pfizer’s purchase of an 11,000-square-foot facility at UNC for the highly specialized manufacturing of recombinant Adeno-Associated Viral vectors.

NCBiotech has a long history of managing transformational life science funding programs statewide. For example, NCBiotech helped recruit Samulski to UNC in 1993 with a $430,000 grant, and supported his work there with four additional grants totaling $550,000. Additionally, several Samulski-associated companies have received $515,000 in NCBiotech loans. Collectively, companies founded by Samulski have brought in over $373 million through investment or acquisition.

“This program demonstrates our commitment to fostering the scientific community by helping to develop and nurture specialized talent, which will be increasingly important as we continue to make headway in potentially transformative fields of medicine such as gene therapy,” said Gregory LaRosa, Chief Scientific Officer, Rare Disease Research Unit, Pfizer.

Doug Edgeton, president and CEO of the Biotech Center, said he was deeply honored that Pfizer targeted North Carolina, and the Center, for the groundbreaking fellowship program.

“Continued gene therapy advances will require creative research scientists with specialized skills and deep scientific knowledge,” he said. “NCBiotech has a transformational record of helping North Carolina become a global life science leader. We not only have outstanding research institutions across our state, but we also have a well-respected culture of partnering and collaboration that allows us to be nimble and responsive. This partnership with Pfizer is a wonderful example.”

The North Carolina Biotechnology Center is a private, non-profit corporation supported by the N.C. General Assembly. Its mission is to transform North Carolina and its life science technology-based economic development through innovation, commercialization, education, and business growth.

(C) N.C. Biotechnology Center