Spark Therapeutics Inc., the commercial anchor of Philadelphia’s burgeoning gene and cell therapy industry, is getting a new CEO, the company announced Wednesday.
A Spark cofounder and its first CEO, Jeffrey D. Marrazzo, will step aside April 1 for Ron Philip, Spark’s chief operating officer. Philip joined Spark in 2017 and helped shepherd the company’s first product, Luxturna, a cure for a condition that can cause blindness, through the regulatory approval process and into the marketplace.
CHOP made the first venture capital investments in Spark and netted the hospital more than $750 million, according to Marrazzo.
Marrazzo, 43, said the timing of his departure was linked to the purchase by Roche.
“My goal was to help the company transition into Roche and position it to take full advantage of what we thought Roche could provide, which is the support, investment, and long-term orientation that would allow us to grow our investment in research and development and the science,” Marrazzo said. “We’re at that point now. We’re extremely well-positioned, and Ron is the best person to take us to that next step.”
Spark employs 800 and is poised to have an even bigger presence in Philadelphia. In December, the company announced plans to build a $575 million gene therapy manufacturing center on Drexel’s campus, at 30th and Chestnut Streets. Construction is expected to begin later this year.
Philip, 48, a Drexel University graduate, said Spark has developed a robust pipeline of potential gene therapies that could be manufactured in the new facility. A treatment for hemophilia is furthest along in clinical trials, Philip said. Also in clinical trials is a treatment for Pompe disease, a metabolic disorder that damages muscle and nerve cells.
It’s notable that another Roche company, Genentech, has a hemophilia treatment, Hemlibra, described during a December investment call as setting a “high bar” for competitors such as the potential gene therapy cure at Spark.
“Not every treatment works for every patient. Multiple options are always necessary and Roche is a company that always looks at diseases pretty broadly,” Philip said. “They want to have obviously the most benefit for patients possible. If that means multiple products, so be it.”
Spark originated in the lab of Katherine A. High, a gene therapy pioneer who was among a small group of researchers to continue gene therapy research after the 1999 death of Jesse Gelsinger in a clinical trial led by Jim Wilson at the University of Pennsylvania scared investors from the field. High went on to cofound Spark as its president and head of research and development and was seen as a key hire when Roche bought Spark.
High left Spark in early 2020 and a year later became president of Asklepios BioPharmaceutical Inc., a gene therapy company in Research Triangle Park, N.C. that is owned by Bayer AG.
Steven Altschuler, who was CEO of CHOP when he persuaded the hospital’s board to invest up to $50 million in Spark, described the company as “responsible for resurrecting the whole field of gene therapy at a time when because of safety concerns and what had happened with Jim Wilson and with Jesse Gelsinger that the industry had basically fallen apart.”
The hospital invested $32.5 million of the approved $50 million.
The creation of Spark was part of an effort by Altschuler, CHOP’s CEO from 2000 to 2015 and now an investor and manager of biotech companies, to get greater financial returns from CHOP’s intellectual property.
Altschuler got to know Marrazzo through a program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, where Marrazzo earned an MBA. Altschuler then tapped Marrazzo “to look at all the technology at CHOP and to come back to me with three different potential business opportunities, which he did and we decided upon Spark,” Altschuler said.
Altschuler then picked Marrazzo to be the founding CEO. “Spark is one of the great success stories of Philadelphia,” he said. “Jeff did an incredible job.”
Marrazzo said he doesn’t plan to join another company as CEO. He said he wants to shift from being so tightly focused on one company, Spark.
“I’m excited to work at what I would consider a greater scale, working with many instead of one,” he said, “certainly doing work in biotechnology, but also doing work outside of biotechnology in other areas of health care and also other things philanthropically and public-policy-wise.”