This scientist's love of cells led to life-changing technology
This doctor digs cells. Her team is changing gene therapy for good.
Patients staring down a life-altering diagnosis need treatment now. For conditions like genetic diseases, certain cancers and Type I diabetes, cell and gene therapies could be the answer. And it takes a lot of cells to produce these therapies.
On a tree-speckled hill overlooking a picturesque river valley, a team of biologists works among the world’s leading materials scientists and engineers at Sullivan Park research facility. Dr. Zara Melkoumian is the business technology director for Corning Life Sciences and was integrally involved in developing new technology that can enable the culturing of cells for these therapies in an efficient, small footprint with automation and control. Zara says a new platform, the Corning® Ascent™ Fixed Bed Reactor (FBR) System, can help give customers the ability to seamlessly scale up production for therapies patients so desperately need.
“We are seeing incredible interest and pull from our customers, and that makes it even more exciting to see how the product our team developed brings value to our customers and helps to solve their problems in delivering these transformative therapies,” Zara said.
As the life sciences industry moves toward more complex biological drugs, Corning’s Ascent platform can play a vital role in accelerating the path from lab bench to potential clinical applications and advance manufacturing of these innovative biologic therapies. Zara says Ascent can transform cell and gene therapies in ways that will impact patient lives.
Researchers and developers of gene therapies use modified viruses, or viral vectors, to deliver genetic material into cells. A primary industry challenge, Zara says, is streamlining production of these viral vectors as processes move from small to large scale. Current processes can be inefficient, unstandardized, and very costly. This, in turn, can result in global shortages of viral vectors and contributes to the very high cost of cell and gene therapies, Zara says.
“With Ascent FBR technology, we wanted to address that problem and deliver a platform that can significantly increase the yield of viral vectors as well as streamline their manufacturing processes,” Zara said.
The Ascent FBR benchtop system was tested in Corning labs and with potential customers throughout 2021, priming the market for a February 2022 product release. And the market is ripe for Ascent technology. The cell and gene therapy market is forecasted to grow to about $40 billion by 2030, with more than 300,000 patients globally expected to be treated with more than 50 approved cell and gene therapies.*
As is the Corning way, the company worked closely with customers to understand scientists’ problems and needs. In cell and gene therapy, some of those problems are the process complexity, cost, space, and time it takes to manufacture enough viral vectors to advance treatments. Now, the Ascent platform is taking some complexity out of a crucial process.
“Right now, the processes of manufacturing viral vectors can be very complex, inefficient, and difficult to scale. So, we set out to develop a platform that increases the yield and is scalable by design, meaning that when customers develop their processes at the small scale, they can efficiently transfer them to large scale, reducing their time to market.”
Central to Zara’s life-changing work is the science she fell in love with – the science that makes Corning technology vital to cell and gene therapies.
Zara is well positioned to understand both the needs of research scientists and of physicians caring for patients. When Zara was a young girl in Armenia, dreaming of one day becoming a doctor, she never imagined the sheer quantity of patients her work could someday reach.
In medical school, she became fascinated by the science of cells and how alterations at the cellular or molecular level could lead to disease initiation and progression. After she finished medical school in Armenia, Zara earned a doctorate in Pharmacology in the United States followed by a postdoctoral fellowship in molecular medicine at Cornell University where she studied the mechanisms that regulate cancer cell growth.
“When I learned about cancer biology in graduate school, I was fascinated with how normal cells can be transformed into cancer cells leading to uncontrolled proliferation and tissue invasion,” Zara said. “The focus of my graduate and post-graduate work was to understand the molecular mechanisms of this transformation in breast cancer by studying two types of genes: oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes. They play opposite roles in regulating cell growth and are the hot spots for mutations in cancer cells.”