Eli Lilly will turn the former GE Fort Point site into a genetics research center

Andrew C. Adams, Lilly’s vice president of genetic medicine, who will serve as co-director of the new institute, said he will focus on developing RNA-based drugs, gene therapies and other treatments that attack the root cause of disease. RNA drugs use ribonucleic acid to switch genes on and off in the treatment of disease. Gene therapies replace faulty genes with healthy genes to help fight disease.

“Boston is probably the center of the world when it comes to RNA and DNA research,” Adams said. “It’s probably the right time for Lilly to invest here to capture that talent.”

The area has long been touted as one of the most attractive life science centers in the world, with the Seaport neighborhood quickly becoming the second largest lab cluster in the area behind Kendall Square.

Record investments from venture capital and other sources in the life sciences industry have fueled a near-relentless demand for lab space to house biotech companies, a trend that has grown throughout the pandemic. About 9.4 million square feet of life sciences space is being built in Greater Boston, with another 52.3 million on offer, according to research by brokerage firm Colliers International. By comparison, the Boston office market has just over 3.1 million square feet under construction, with an additional 1.4 million square feet under construction in Cambridge and the suburbs, according to data from Colliers.

Adams said Lilly followed a “rigorous process” when finding a home for the institute of genetic medicine. The Seaport property now puts the company close to potential talent and collaborators, Adams said.

“A lot of the types of businesses that Lilly wants to work with as partners are really growing in this port area,” he said.

Lilly has made several forays into genetic medicine in recent years. In December, it spent $380 million to form a partnership with Foghorn Therapeutics, a Cambridge biotech focused on genetic cancer treatments. In 2020, Lilly spent around $1 billion on New York gene therapy company Prevail Therapeutics.

And in 2018, he paid $100 million to Lexington-based Dicerna Pharmaceuticals and invested another $100 million in research and development at the company. Dicerna was working on drugs that rely on RNA interference, a Nobel Prize-winning technology that drugmakers hope to use to turn off disease-causing genes. Dicerna is now owned by Danish pharmaceutical company Norvo Nordisk, which acquired it in December for $3.3 billion.

Along with its latest projects in Massachusetts, Lilly plans to expand Prevail’s headquarters in New York, which has become a hub for gene therapy research, to employ about 200 scientists.

With 250 employees in Massachusetts, Lilly would not be among the top 20 biopharmaceutical employers in the state by number of employees. The largest is Takeda Pharmaceutical, which is based in Japan and has 6,750 workers, according to a 2021 report by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council trade group. The 20th largest is AstraZeneca, the Anglo-Swedish company, with 500 employees.

Messenger RNA coronavirus vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna brought genetic medicine to the public on a large scale. But Adams said the Lilly Institute did not expect to work on vaccines. Rather, it will focus on drugs similar to those developed by Cambridge biotech Alnylam Pharmaceuticals.

In 2018, Alnylam won the first-ever approval for a drug that uses RNA interference to “silence” disease-causing genes. The drug, called Onpattro, treated a rare hereditary disease. Alnylam has since gained approval for three other RNAi drugs, all but one for rare inherited diseases.

Lilly is working on experimental drugs to treat diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, and hopes the new institute can help, according to Adams. The biggest challenge is to design technologies that can efficiently deliver genetic drugs to different organs, including the brain and the pancreas.

“Delivery, delivery, delivery are the top three priorities we have in my group” of scientists, he said.

When GE moved its headquarters to Boston from Connecticut in 2016, it planned to renovate two historic Necco candy factories into one building and build a flashy second headquarters from the ground up. When announcing GE’s commitment to Boston, then-CEO Jeff Immelt joked that he wished the GE logo at headquarters could be seen from space.

But the legendary company quickly fell into a tailspin, and new CEO Larry Culp saw no need for a second building. GE eventually sold the site to Alexandria Real Estate Equities — among the region’s largest developers of lab space — and Newton-based National Development for $252 million, and also repaid the state $87 million. dollars of incentives he had received as part of the state effort. to attract Connecticut’s GE.

Alexandria and National then began construction of a laboratory complex at 15 Necco St.

It’s unclear what kind of public access to the waterfront Alexandria, National or Lilly intend to create. State regulations require that buildings erected on waterfront property have some type of public access or public benefit. GE, for example, expanded the Harborwalk outside its headquarters. State officials are reviewing the developers’ plans and have requested more information, an Environmental Protection Department representative said.

Alexandria is rapidly expanding its local Boston footprint outside of its Cambridge stronghold and has plans for the development of additional labs in South Boston. Peter Moglia, co-CEO of Alexandria, said in a statement that 15 Necco St. is “designed to be a unique and inspiring establishment.”

“We are thrilled to bring an anchor tenant to this unprecedented seaport location, where we are pioneering a new life sciences submarket,” said Moglia.

Indeed, the stretch of former Gillette parking lots fronting the Fort Point Canal leading to the Broadway MBTA station in South Boston has attracted a lot of developer interest in recent years. Another major developer, Related Beal, offers a laboratory, offices and multi-building residential complex on 6.5 acres between 15 Necco St. and Gillette’s headquarters.

Catherine Carlock can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @bycathcarlock. Jonathan Saltzman can be contacted at [email protected]