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Gene Therapy Manufacturing Comes to Fall River

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You may never have heard of MassBiologics, but if you’ve ever gotten a tetanus booster shot in Massachusetts, you’ve gotten one of their medicines. MassBiologics is the only non-profit in the country that is FDA-licensed to manufacture vaccines and biological medications. In its 120 year history, it has delivered more than 100 million doses of medicines globally.

"We started out in 1894, as a collaboration between the Department of Public health and Harvard University," explains Executive Vice Chancellor Mark Klempner.

The so-called State Lab was one of several public health labs around the country charged with developing ways to protect the American public from common infectious diseases, like diphtheria or botulism. The state of the science, at that time, was to expose a horse to the toxin or disease of interest, let it mount its own immune response, then collect some of its blood, clean it up, and use it to treat or prevent illness in humans.

By the mid-1900’s, attention was shifting from horses to humans as a source of antibody-rich hyper-immune plasma. State Lab developed early vaccines that are still used today. They were also among those putting our new understanding of human blood chemistry to work for the benefit of World War II soldiers. 

A Harvard researcher named Edwin Cohn developed a way of separating, or fractionating, blood into its different components - things like albumin, globulin, and clotting factors. It became big business, and what had been the State Lab became the State Laboratory for Plasma Fractionation. They were still affiliated with Harvard University, just a different part.

In 1997, the Commonwealth transferred the State Laboratory for Plasma Fractionation to the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and they became MassBiologics of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The focus of their work also shifted again. Now, instead of collecting blood products from horses or people, they were manufacturing vaccines in steel tanks.

Fast forward another twenty years, and MassBiologics is moving into a new realm, yet again. This time, it’s gene therapies, starting with a drug that could significantly extend the useful lifespan of L-dopa, the primary treatment for Parkinson's disease. The company's gene therapy division has recently moved into a space in Fall River. They're currently renovating the space to meet federal drug manufacturing standards, and hope to be making gene therapies by early 2016.