Bluebird Bio is growing its nest in Seattle.
The leading biotech company held a ribbon-cutting event Friday to celebrate the opening of its new cancer research facility where employees will work on finding therapies for genetic disorders.
Bluebird, which fully embraces bird puns, said the new “nest” (facility) will house 31 “birds” (employees) from the company’s “flock.” The 25,000 square-foot space is located at 188 E Blaine St. in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood.
Researchers in the new facility will investigate early-stage cancer treatments, expanding on existing research collaborations with Seattle Children’s Research Institute and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
“Right here in Seattle, our research team is focused on really the pioneering end of the research spectrum,” said Philip Gregory, Bluebird’s chief scientific officer.
Washington State Governor and presidential candidate Jay Inslee was on hand at the event Friday. He called the company’s work “outstanding science” and the new facility “another jewel in the crown of Washington State’s bioscience ecosystem.”
Bluebird first got a foothold in the city when it bought Seattle-based Precision Genome Engineering for around $156 million in 2014. The company is based in Cambridge, Mass.
Bluebird’s gene therapy drug, called Zynteglo, is the world’s second-most expensive drug at $1.8 million. It received approval in Europe for patients with the blood disorder, called transfusion-dependent beta-thalassemia (TDT), who meet certain conditions. The company expects to apply next year for approval of the drug in the U.S., where around 10,000 people live with TDT.
CEO Nick Leschly has defended the drug’s price, which is not charged in full unless patients go four years without a blood transfusion. The company charges $357,000 upfront and the rest in annual installments. Leschly said “the system doesn’t know how to digest” one-time, curative treatments.
Bluebird is also working on treatments for cerebral adrenoleukodystrophy, multiple myeloma and sickle cell disease.
Inslee has been a strong advocate of Washington’s life science industry. During a different ribbon-cutting a few years ago, Inslee showed up — and geeked out — over the lab of local biotech Nohla Therapeutics.
“We’re getting a critical mass on the genetic side,” said Inslee. “Having multiple companies is very important because that helps recruiting. You recruit together and you compete together, in a sense.”
Joel Marcus, founder and executive chairman of Alexandria Real Estate Equities, which owns both Bluebird’s Seattle location as well as its Cambridge headquarters, also noted the recruiting angle.
“You see today a number of companies expanding to different locations really to access talent pool and access scientific prowess in those communities. I think those are the reasons you see Bluebird in Seattle,” Marcus said.
Biotech companies have long griped about the lack of available lab space in the region, where the vacancy rate for life science facilities is just 1.5 percent, according to a recent report from real estate firm CBRE. Hans Bishop, the former CEO of Juno Therapeutics, said in 2016 that wet lab space in Washington state was “rare as hen’s teeth.”
With the expansion in Seattle, Bluebird joins international biotechs such as Gilead and Celgene who have also established a presence in the city.
Industry group Life Science Washington is also moving into 188 E. Blaine this month with a 4,000 square-foot lease that will house a dozen employees.
In addition to its Cambridge headquarters, Bluebird has offices in Durham, N.C., and in six European countries. The company employs nearly 1,000 people globally.