October 30th, 2018
By Susan Gonsalves, Correspondent
For original article visit telegram.com Worcester, Massachusetts
WORCESTER — Biologist Natalie Fekete said the best part of her job is knowing that she can make a difference in people’s lives.
Originally from Germany, Ms. Fekete is a senior research engineer at Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics. The company marked its establishment of a life sciences laboratory on the University of Massachusetts Medical School campus with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in March.
The site was chosen because of its proximity to the company’s research and development facility in Northboro.
Ms. Fekete and research engineer Jennifer Morgan focus on developing and testing new products that can be used in the cell and gene therapies market.
Saint-Gobain’s Performance Plastics unit manufactures disposable products, such as cell culture and processing bags called VueLife. The bags are made mostly from fluorinated ethylene propylene (FEP).
“Our materials provide a comfortable home for the cells while they are outside of the body,” Ms. Fekete said.
The purpose of the 1,400-square-foot Biosafety Level 2 lab is to isolate, process and culture cells and evaluate their material and protein interactions.
In a press release, Benjamin Le Quere, manager of Saint-Gobain’s Bioprocess Solutions said the intention is to understand how their products affect the end-use application.
“We’re trying to bridge that gap of understanding between materials and biology,” he said.
Ms. Fekete describes the therapy process as a “needle to needle,” operation. It starts with blood being drawn from a patient, then put into a bag where the cells are isolated and processed as needed.
She explained that the next steps involve stimulating and engineering the cells to combat cancer, for example, and activating the most potent cell type to the patient.
The patient ultimately receives the cell product via a needle.
“The cells are small and alive,” Ms. Fekete noted. “They can’t lose potency. How can we generate a cell product that works every time? How can we improve what the manufacturers built into the material? It’s a very young and exciting field and a new way to treat diseases.”
Ms. Fekete said that Saint-Gobain stands out in the field thanks to its 353 years of materials experience as well as its global presence.
“Most (companies) don’t focus on the interface with biology the way we do,” she said. “Others make the bag but don’t understand the biology.”
In addition to equipment to study the interactions, the laboratory has a space for application development with specific capabilities in sterile welding, pumping and low temperature testing.
“The opportunity to build a lab is unique, very challenging and new to Saint-Gobain,” Ms. Fekete said.
“The Worcester lab is a critical component of our strategy to build upon our capabilities in the cell and gene therapy space,” noted Steve Maddox, general manager of Saint-Gobain Life Sciences in a statement.
This type of emerging therapy is fascinating, Ms. Fekete said, because it uses a person’s own cells to combat its own disease. “It’s truly personalized medicine.”
“Mutations in DNA happen every day. The immune system is there to fight them off and eliminate them. Ninety percent of the time, it works. When it doesn’t, the immune system needs to be re-triggered to focus on itself.”
The work’s complexity, as well as the vastness of the company with “lots of moving parts,” are simultaneously Ms. Fekete’s favorite and most difficult parts of the job.
“Biology is not straightforward. Each cell is different. You have to test a lot to understand what happens in order to make the most quality product,” Ms. Fekete added.
“The work Natalie does is amazing. To work in this company and in this field is something we can be proud of,” said Lauren Howe, senior manager, philanthropy, community engagement and crisis communications.
Although no formal partnership exists with UMass, Ms. Fekete said that she makes use of the university’s core facilities, which can be accessed on a fee basis. She said that a more formal agreement is possible in the future.
“I look forward to someday knocking on the doors of UMass to get feedback,” she said.
The performance plastics unit is part of Saint-Gobain Corp., the North American holding company of the France-based parent company, Cie de Saint-Gobain. The parent company was founded in 1665 and also serves the building products, infrastructure, transportation and industrial markets. In 2017, it posted sales of $47.5 billion. The company has a total of 179,000 employees and a manufacturing or retail presence in 67 countries.