On March 27th, global biopharma company CSL opened a new R&D facility in Waltham, Massachusetts. The facility, which will be focused on next-generation vaccines, includes a BSL3 laboratory facility: the highest security lab, on a level with the CDC, to study potentially dangerous contagions.
pharmaphorum had a chance to watch the ribbon-cutting ceremony and tour the new facility, including the not-yet-operational, high-security lab – and now we invite Deep Dive readers to come along via this photo essay. Want more background on CSL and the lab opening? Check out our video interview with CSL leadership here.
Ethan Settembre, Vice President, Research, Vaccines Innovation Unit, served as master of ceremonies for the brief presentation. Settembre welcomed the crowd of mostly CSL employees and thanked everyone involved for their work in getting the new factory up and running.
A short speech by Waltham Mayor Jeannette McCarthy preceded the official ribbon cutting. McCarthy discussed the history of manufacturing in Waltham, which she called “the city of IT”. She was joined on stage by the whole Waltham City Council.
“Innovation and collaboration with government officials, with academic partners, with other industry partners are the key for our success as a company,” said CEO Paul McKenzie. “We need to innovate with everything we do and we need to build on the strong foundation we have at CSL – over a hundred-year history of really making a difference for patients around the globe, and most importantly for public health.”
That history, which extends to CSL’s beginnings as a nationalised Australian laboratory, began with the world’s last major pandemic – the 1918 Spanish flu.
Bill Mezzanotte, CSL’s head of R&D and chief medical officer, was next to speak. Mezzanotte talked about CSL’s company culture and the symbolic significance of the facility.
“Not only is this location an ideal fit for what we can do in the external world, it’s just a world-class facility and it’s a great place for our R&D talent to do their work,” he said. “And the space is designed the way our culture is: it’s open, it’s suitable for collaboration, and it’s very transparent.”
John Edelman, CSL’s SVP for vaccine innovation, closed out the presentations with some more details on the next-generation RNA work the company plans to do at the facility.
“As you heard a couple of times today so far, one of the most exciting platforms we’ve been working on is the next generation of mRNA technology, which has the potential to offer better and more robust immune responses at a lower dose, which may in turn lead to more effective and better tolerated vaccines,” he said.
The lab operations are always behind glass, so that even when they’re secure they’re not secretive.
“Part of the reason why we have the large glass walls is because we purposely want people to feel as though they’re part of the research,” Settembre said.
Settembre said the lab is laid out somewhat sequentially with regards to the steps involved in making a vaccine – first, microbial molecular biology, the group that designs the DNA or RNA of the vaccine (shown here); then protein biochemistry and formulations, which make and formulate the vaccine; and finally analytical biochemistry, which evaluates and tests the final product.
The BSL3 high security lab is designed for one purpose: Keeping anything, even the tiniest particle, from getting out of the lab if it’s not supposed to. The entrance is an airlock system and the lab is kept at a lower air pressure than the rest of the facility, so that even if the doors were somehow opened or the emergency exit is opened, air will flow into the room instead of out of it.
Researchers entering the lab will have to shower, leave personal items in lockers, and wear special gear. They also must scan key cards at multiple checkpoints.
A researcher works in the RNA tissue culture lab. CSL announced a partnership last year with Arcturus Therapeutics to access its late-stage self-amplifying mRNA technology, and this collaboration will underpin the next-generation mRNA work being done at this new facility.
A display case at the entrance to the labs shows the vaccines CSL has previously developed and some awards that the company has won.
Jonah Comstock is a veteran health tech and digital health reporter. In addition to covering the industry for nearly a decade through articles and podcasts, he is also an oft-seen face at digital health events and on digital health Twitter.
[All photos by Jonah Comstock]