March 19, 2024

The Boston Globe


‘Kendall Square Jr.’ Another big biotech firm sets up shop in the Seaport.

Contemporary paintings by artists who have overcome homelessness or disabilities greet visitors in the lobby. Upstairs in the cafeteria, employees order lunches served by local restaurants, including barbecued pulled pork sandwiches from Pennypacker’s. On the top floor, workers can savor a panoramic view of the Seaport District and downtown Boston.

This is the new headquarters of Foundation Medicine, a biotechnology firm that is consolidating its 1,100 Massachusetts employees into a new 16-story brick masonry building at 400 Summer St. Foundation, established in 2010 and later acquired by the Swiss drug giant Roche, had workers scattered among four locations, including its former headquarters in Cambridge.

About 800 workers have moved into the 630,000-square-foot building, which is kitty-corner from the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, with the remaining 300 expected to arrive by early next year. No one seems happier about the long-planned consolidation than Dan Malarek, a 17-year veteran of Roche who became Foundation’s chief executive in December.

“I’m a firm believer in face-to-face interaction,” said Malarek, who most recently served as global head of marketing and customer insights at Roche Diagnostics in Switzerland. “I’m excited about getting everyone together and just seeing how that collaborative spirit flourishes.”

In the 10 years since Vertex Pharmaceuticals moved from Cambridge to a sprawling complex on the waterfront, the Seaport has become perhaps the second-most coveted location for Massachusetts’ world-famous biopharma industry, behind Kendall Square.

Indeed, “Kendall Square Jr.” is how Ben Bradford, head of external affairs at the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, an industry trade group, describes the neighborhood. It features homegrown startups and the US headquarters of multinational drug makers.

Among the companies located there are Alexion Pharmaceuticals (the rare disease unit of the British-Swedish drug maker AstraZeneca), CRISPR Therapeutics, Ginkgo Bioworks, Ratio Therapeutics, and Servier Pharmaceuticals. In addition, pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co. has invested $700 million to create a genetic medicine research center and laboratories in a 12-story building under construction along Fort Point Channel. And EMD Serono, the American drug development arm of Germany’s Merck KGaA, plans to move its headquarters from the South Shore town of Rockland to the Seaport this summer.

Foundation’s new headquarters was developed by WS Development of Chestnut Hill and completed this year. Foundation has leased all 16 floors in the $350 million building but plans to sublet four of them, or about 120,000 square feet, to tenants yet to be identified.

Foundation will continue to allow employees to work hybrid schedules that put them in the office two or three days a week, said Malarek.

Vertex is by far the biggest biopharma employer in the Seaport, with about 4,000 employees, according to a company spokesperson. AstraZeneca and Alexion have about 1,600 employees in Massachusetts, including about 900 in the Seaport, according to an Alexion spokesperson.

Foundation, which uses gene sequencing to identify mutations causing cancer and potential treatments, is the 12th-largest biopharma employer in the state, according to MassBio. It had fewer than 1,000 total employees in 2018, compared with 1,750 today. (The 650 outside Massachusetts are located in Morrisville, N.C.; San Diego; and Penzburg, Germany.)

That growth has been driven by a surge in targeted cancer therapy drugs, which, in turn, has fueled demand for genetic tests that match medicines with mutations, according to Foundation executives.

Foundation has two diagnostic products approved by the Food and Drug Administration that test tissue or blood samples to identify mutations that drive cancerous tumors. Within about a week of receiving the samples, Foundation generates detailed reports that list the genomic features of tumors as well as medicines — approved or in clinical trials — that could treat the cancer.

About 10 years ago, Malarek said, about 20 FDA-approved drugs targeted cancer-causing mutations. Today, he said, there are more than 90, making it increasingly challenging for oncologists to determine which medicine would work best for which patient.

“The more targeted therapies, the more testing you’re going to need to do,” Malarek said.

Roche, the 127-year-old Swiss multinational, owned about 57 percent of Foundation’s common stock and bought the rest of the firm in 2018 for $2.4 billion. Roche has a broad portfolio of cancer drugs, but Foundation genomic reports will list medicines made by rival companies if they are a better fit for mutations identified by the biotech’s tests, Malarek said.

Foundation has generated more than 1 million patient reports to date, according to the company. They include reports of several cancer survivors whose photographs and stories are displayed on a second-floor glass wall engraved with a DNA-inspired design.

One of the patients, John White, a retired North Attleborough bioengineer, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2014 that spread to his bladder and pelvic lymph nodes. It didn’t respond to hormone therapy and chemotherapy. His oncologist feared White might have only a year to live.

Foundation sequenced the DNA of cancer cells in White’s prostate gland, which had been surgically removed, and determined that he might respond to Keytruda, sold by Merck & Co. Keytruda was approved to treat several forms of cancer, although not prostate tumors.

White started taking the drug in 2016, and it worked. He has had no evidence of the disease since 2018, as the Globe reported that year.

“I’ve been cancer-free,” White, 68, said in an interview last week. Foundation, he said, “hit it out of the park with me.”

By Johnathan Saltzman

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