Biotech Titan

Published in Hopkins Medicine - Summer 2020

In the fast-growing biotechnology world — where experimental gene- and cell-based therapies are pursued energetically — Steve Harr ’98 quickly has become a superstar.

Over the past decade, he has gone from managing director of biotechnology investment banking for Morgan Stanley to being a founder of several biotech companies that have garnered billions of dollars in investments and been among the leaders of research and development in harnessing the power of genetic and cellular reprogramming to combat deadly diseases.

One company, Juno Therapeutics, was founded in 2014 and quickly raised $265 million from investors. Clinical trials of one of its cancer therapies were promising, and Juno was acquired by another firm, Celgene, for $11 billion in 2018. Last year, Celgene was absorbed by Bristol Myers Squibb for $74 billion.

After the Juno takeover, Harr, several Juno co-founders and a group of other scientists launched another company focused on engineered cells, Sana Biotechnology, with Harr as president and CEO.

“We want to build something that is transformative in its impact for patients,” Harr said then. Sana focuses on engineering cells, with a goal of being able to repair or replace damaged cells. Examples include repairing the genetic mutations of inherited diseases and replacing cells after an insult, such as type 1 diabetes or a heart attack. The goal is to give patients a single treatment that leaves them free of the symptoms or even the underlying cause of disease.

Last October, Harr spoke at The Johns Hopkins Hospital about moving academic discoveries into industry. “Academia focuses on the creative process of discovery,” Harr said. “Industry focuses on reducing things to practice. Often there’s this gap that occurs between the creative process and reducing disruptive science to practice. We have to figure out how to bridge it.

“The Hopkins ecosystem, with the breadth and quality of both the science and clinical care, sits in a special place. Given the scientific and clinical complexity of moving engineered cells from the laboratory into broadly available medicines, it has rare potential to serve as a center of excellence. Patient selection, a deep understanding of the science and excellence across multiple domains of clinical care will all be essential for this next era in medicine.”