SANFORD – Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer plans to invest $500 million in its Sanford operations, creating 300 jobs as the company expands its gene therapy efforts.

“Our purpose is to deliver breakthroughs that change people’s lives,” Angela Hwang, Pfizer’s biopharmaceuticals group president, said during a Wednesday morning news conference announcing the expansion. “We passionately believe in gene therapy.”

Hwang said about 3,000 diseases result from a single genetic mutation, and scientists are working to manipulate genes in order to find cures for them.

Pfizer spent some $600 million to acquire Chapel Hill-based startup Bamboo Therapeutics in 2016. The following year, the company said it would expand gene therapy research and development, as well as jobs, with a $100 million package linked to the Bamboo Therapeutics deal and research done at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Mike McDermott, president of Pfizer Global Supply, said the company’s operation in Research Triangle Park works with the Chapel Hill lab and the Sanford plant to produce “high-quality, efficient supply of gene therapies at the clinical and commercial scale.”

Pfizer’s biggest gene therapy efforts so far focus on hemophilia and Duchenne muscular dystrophy, but Hwang said gene-based cures for ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and other illnesses are also under research.

“You’re making a difference by being able to find something that could completely change [patients’] lives,” Gov. Roy Cooper said. “I think, when you put your head on the pillow at night, you can sleep well, thinking that you are helping to fulfill that purpose and that mission.”

Pfizer also has poured money into R&D elsewhere across North Carolina, committing $4 million to a gene therapy fellowship program to be overseen by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.

Pfizer already employs about 650 people in Sanford – the plant makes vaccines such as Prevnar 13, which is used to prevent bacterial infections that cause pneumonia – and about 3,600 in North Carolina. The Sanford expansion is part of the company’s “bigger blueprint” to expand its U.S. manufacturing base by $5 billion in the next five years, McDermott said.

Gene therapy hub building in Triangle

The Research Triangle is quickly becoming a hub for gene therapy research and development, as well as production of related treatments. The efforts have helped boost the Triangle to the fifth-ranked life science cluster in the U.S., according to a recent report by Los Angeles-based CBRE Group, the world’s largest commercial real estate services and investment firm.

North Carolina also is the No. 3 state for “Biotechnology Strength,” according to Business Facilities’ 15th Annual Rankings Report for 2019.

Gene therapy research also is a very active area of focus for scientists at UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University and North Carolina State University, with particular attention being paid to what is known as CRISPR gene editing,

Here are some recent highlights from gene therapy and CRISPR gene editing in the Triangle:

  • Asklepios BioPharmaceutical (AskBio), recently received a $235 million vote of confidence in April.
  • In March, Paris-based biotechnology company Cellectis said it would invest nearly $70 million and create 200 jobs in Raleigh, at what will become its first North American manufacturing facility.
  • In February, AveXis, Inc. said it would double its planned workforce and investing $60 million more in its new Durham County manufacturing facility.
  • Also in March, bluebird bio, a Massachusetts-based gene and cell therapy company, opened its first wholly owned manufacturing facility in Durham amid cheers from state leaders.

Recent gene editing, biotech jobs headlines in WRAL TechWire:

Merck picks Durham, Wilson for $680M expansion, 425 new jobs

AskBio gets $235 million in gene therapy support

French firm Cellectis investment, jobs to boost NC’s gene therapy prominence

Gene therapy firm to add 200 jobs, invest $60M in Durham county facility

Pfizer’s expansion is the second big biotech jobs announcement in recent weeks, following Merck’s decision to add more than 400 jobs in Durham and Wilson.