Spark R&D chief High exits in wake of Roche takeover

Kathy High (Spark Therapeutics)

Spark Therapeutics co-founder and R&D head Kathy High has left the gene therapy specialist in the wake of its takeover by Roche. The Basel-based Big Pharma talked up its ability to cope with the loss of the R&D chief, pointing to the 450-person team High helped build to back up its confidence.

As a professor at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), High was involved in early efforts to give patients with an inherited vision loss disorder a functioning version of RPE65. The work led High to found Spark with Jeff Marrazzo, who became CEO of the biotech, and Steven Altschuler, the former president of CHOP, and ultimately to the approval of RPE65 gene therapy Luxturna.

High oversaw the development of Luxturna and the rest of Spark’s pipeline. However, with Spark now part of Roche, High has decided to end her time in industry. Philadelphia Business Journal first broke the news, which Roche subsequently confirmed in a statement.

Roche’s statement highlighted the central role High played in Luxturna, Spark’s hemophilia A and B gene therapy candidates and its takeover of the biotech she co-founded. However, Roche also sought to downplay the risk that High’s departure could harm the prospects of the pipeline it acquired in the takeover of Spark.

“Today, Spark has broad scientific knowledge and expertise in gene therapy, with the company now numbering more than 450 employees and continued growth expected in the future. This is why we don’t expect any impact on the scientific expertise of our team or clinical programs. We expect that our scientific and clinical teams will continue their proven track record of innovation, progress and safety,” the Roche spokesperson said.

Roche singled out a hemophilia A gene therapy as a Spark program that it “remains committed to.” The public commitment to the program follows a lull in news about the gene therapy. Spark shared phase 1/2 data late in 2018 and quietly began a lead-in study for a phase 3 trial last year. However, the gene therapy specialist said little about the program during its protracted takeover by Roche.

The period of radio silence now looks set to end, with Roche stating it will share an update on the program “in due course.” Roche will have to manage the program without the support of High, who is set to “take some well-deserved time off and then will begin a new chapter in a sabbatical at a university,” according to the Swiss Big Pharma.