Spark Co-Founder Katherine High Departs Company Ahead of Merger with Roche

Quit Job

Katherine High, the longtime head of research and development at Spark Therapeutics, is stepping down from the company as it prepares to be absorbed by Swiss pharma giant Roche.

The news was first reported by the Philadelphia Business Journal. High, 68, will, according to a brief statement from the company, take some “well-deserved time off,” the Journal reported. High co-founded the Philadelphia-based gene therapy company in September 2014 after spending 12 years as the director of the Center for Cellular & Molecular Therapeutics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. She was also the head of hematology research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. High’s research focused primarily on the use of gene therapy as a treatment for hemophilia, which was one of the central pieces that drew Roche to acquire Spark for $4.8 billion. Data from Spark’s hemophilia gene therapy, SPK-8011, showed a one-time treatment yielded a 97% response rate in reduced bleeding events in patients.

In a statement to the Journal, High said she has “every confidence” the company’s capacity to continue to advance gene therapy under the Roche banner.

“The opportunity to work with a world-class drug development organization such as Roche best positions Spark to continue to ‘up its game’ and reach the full potential of gene therapy,” High said in the statement, according to the Journal.

In addition to her work with hemophilia, High also expanded her research into developing gene therapy solutions for hereditary blindness. That research helped lead to the green light of Spark’s first approved gene therapy treatment, Luxturna (voretigene neparvovec), a gene therapy for a rare, genetic form of blindness. Luxturna is approved for the treatment of pediatric and adult patients with confirmed biallelic RPE65 mutation-associated retinal dystrophy. The disease can lead to vision loss and may cause complete blindness in certain patients. The approval marked the first time the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a directly administered gene therapy that targets a disease caused by mutations in a specific gene.

For her work on Luxturna, High, along with Jean Bennet, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania’s school of medicine, won the inaugural $1 million Sanford Lorraine Cross Award in 2018.

High is the former president of the American Society of Gene and Cell Therapy and served on the board of directors of Virion Therapeutics, a Philadelphia-based company focused on the development of the first checkpoint inhibitor powered vaccines for the treatment of cancers and chronic viral infections.

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