When you walk into Juno Therapeutics‘ new headquarters in Seattle, your eyes are immediately drawn to the view. The office’s 12th-floor reception desk offers a stunning panorama of the Olympic mountains, the waters of Puget Sound and the city as seen from South Lake Union, complete with its forest of cranes.
As you get deeper into the building, you pass unique architectural touches and cleverly designed open workplaces throughout all nine stories. But all that pales in comparison to a simple wall in the building’s community room: The Memorial Wall.
Juno is working on cutting-edge treatments — and eventually maybe cures — for cancer, and this wall reminds employees why they slog through Seattle traffic to make it to their desk every day. It’s plastered with photos and stories of parents, children, friends and patients that employees have lost to cancer.
That wall is at the heart of Juno’s mission, and it’s purposefully placed at the heart of its new home: A custom-built office tower that officially opens Thursday evening with a grand welcome party. The unique new building represents a big investment in Seattle and a transition for Seattle’s biotech industry at large.
Juno CEO Hans Bishop told GeekWire that Seattle is truly home to the company, which spun out of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in 2013.
“The company was originally founded by a group of scientists that were from Seattle and New York, and the very first beginning, putting the company together was centered around the Seattle part of it. So we put our first roots down — and stayed,” he said.
When the company started to grow, it hit the classic problem for Seattle biotech: There just isn’t enough lab space in the city to go around, especially for a large public company like Juno. The company wanted to keep both its scientists and its office employees in one unified headquarters near downtown, but such a building didn’t exist at the time.
“In fact, Seattle’s knocking down labs, which is a tragedy. So, we had no choice but to work with a partner, Alexandria Real Estate, to actually create a new building that allowed us to have labs downtown and have all of our non-lab people down here as well,” Bishop said.
The headquarters totals 176,000 square feet of office space and 65,000 square feet of lab space. It has room for more than 600 employees, and for the moment will house about 350 of Juno’s 500 plus employees. Contractor Skanska built the interior of Juno’s space.
The company also has a manufacturing location in Bothell, Wash., and offices in Boston and Germany as well as a planned Bay Area office that’s still in the works.
Juno’s new Seattle HQ and its lab space are unique. Unlike many research areas, Juno’s labs aren’t tucked out of sight but are directly integrated with the rest of the building. Five of the nine floors are split between lab and office space, with floor-to-ceiling windows between the two halves so employees have a direct line of sight into the groundbreaking research happening around them.
The building also has surprisingly few walls. All the employees work in open office spaces — even the executives.
“Even though it comes with some challenges, an open work environment is supportive of collaboration. There are some things you need to do to make that work, and our science and our engineering really require interdisciplinary collaboration,” Bishop said.
The choice was also cost-effective: an open footprint with a few break-out rooms costs much less than an office with lots of closed-off spaces. That leaves more resources for the important stuff, like curing cancer.
It’s an exciting time to be working in CAR T immunotherapy, the kind of treatments that Juno is working on. The approach involves genetically engineering T cells in a patient’s immune system so that they seek out and destroy cancer cells.
The treatments have long been viewed with some skepticism by mainstream medicine, but the remarkable success of CAR T treatments in the past few years is beginning to change that view.
Last month, the FDA approved the first CAR T treatment on the market, a drug called Kymriah that treats childhood leukemia. It was developed by pharmaceutical company Novartis and an amazing 83 percent of patients who took the drug in clinical trials went into complete remission, even after other treatments had failed to defeat their cancer.
“They’ve clearly arrived,” Bishop said of CAR T treatments. “They’ve arrived in the sense that, the first CAR T cell for kids with leukemia has been approved, which, of course, is the most important landmark. Many children who needed this therapy — it was a crapshoot whether they could get in a clinical trial or not. Now it’s an approved drug, and so access to that drug is going to be greatly improved.”
Despite a setback when it was forced to pull its most advanced drug candidate earlier this year, Juno is also steaming towards FDA approval for some of its drugs. It hails a drug called JCAR017 as its flagship treatment — like most CAR T cells being commercialized today, it targets the CD19 protein in blood cancer cells.
“In fact, we think it’s going to be the best CAR T-cell in CD19 disease,” Bishop said. “And, why do we say that? Because we’re showing levels of efficacy — or, what I really mean in proper English, patients getting durable remissions. And with doing that, with very low levels of toxicity. That’s the goal of any medicine, is to maximize your benefit and minimize your toxicity,” he said.
The company is also working with research centers like Fred Hutch, Seattle Children’s Hospital and Memorial Sloan Kettering to investigate different kinds of CAR T treatments, specifically treatments for solid tumors. At the moment, most CAR T treatments are aimed at blood cancers.
And its labs are home to all kinds of innovative biology and health technology. Juno’s VP of research, Francois Vigneault, is the inventor of the fastest single-cell processor in the world, which helps the company’s scientists understand the inner workings of each patient’s cells on an incredibly granular level.
Bishop also said the company is working on technology to scale up the production of CAR T cells — although the treatments are incredibly effective, they are also slow, complex and costly to produce, something Juno and others working in the space are trying to fix. Juno’s new headquarters is designed to drive that and other innovations as the company keeps finding new ways to save the lives of those with cancer.
Editor’s note: The name of Juno’s flagship drug has been corrected since this story was first published. It is JCAR017, not JCAR015.