By Ben Hirschler
LONDON (Reuters) - General Electric is raising its bet on biotechnology with the launch of prefabricated manufacturing units for producing virus-based gene and cell therapies, novel anti-cancer treatments and vaccines.
Interest in such medicines, which use engineered viruses to carry healthy genetic material into the cells of sick people, has exploded recently as the first wave of gene-fixing drugs reach the market.
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That has left some drug companies scrambling for sufficient capacity at a time when the industry is also grappling with shortages of DNA-carrying viral vectors.
GE, better known for making jet engines and turbines, sees an opportunity in the fast-growing field. It aims to build on its existing expertise in biotech manufacturing by delivering a "factory-in-a-box" service specifically for viral vector-based medicine.
The U.S. conglomerate already makes off-the-shelf modular factories for other complex biological medicines, such as monoclonal antibodies.
Its so-called KUBio factories are cheaper and faster to construct than traditional factories, offering GE a way to win business for its growing life sciences business. Depending on the factory design and the drug being made, an equivalent KUBio could reduce build costs by as much as 50 percent, according to the company.
A spokeswoman said GE was currently in talks with several potential customers for the new off-the-shelf viral vector factories.
GE is also stepping up operations within the wider supply chain that is needed to deliver cell therapies like Novartis' Kymriah and Gilead Sciences' Yescarta, both of which were approved in 2017 for treating certain blood cancers.
Last year, for example, GE Healthcare bought British-based Asymptote, a specialist in freezing, preserving and transporting large volumes of living cells.
Overall, GE says it expects to have a $1 billion-a-year gene and cell therapy business by 2025.
The are now more than 700 viral vector-based therapies in clinical trials, spurring demand for biologically secure bioreactors to churn out products.
Since most such treatments are targeted therapies designed for small patient populations, GE is betting that drug companies will prefer its flexible small-scale KUBio units to large traditional factories.
(Editing by Mark Potter)