The following article originally appeared in Pharma's Almanac on May 30, 2023.
In this Q&A, John Tobin, Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer, Life Science Technologies, and John “Yoshi” Shyu, Director, Global Scientific Applications, both with Corning Life Sciences (CLS), discuss the company’s long history supplying the life sciences industry. They also explain the unique position CLS holds in supporting and accelerating customer innovation from research to the development of novel therapeutics, in conversation with Pharma’s Almanac Editor in Chief David Alvaro, Ph.D.
David Alvaro (DA): Corning is undoubtedly one of the great American brands, and the company has a long and impressive history in the life sciences. We could probably spend all of our time on that history alone, but can you share a concise version?
John Tobin (JT): The Life Sciences division is the oldest division in Corning Incorporated. Corning has been in the lab since 1915 — providing innovations and tools to scientists that have enabled life-changing and in many cases life-saving discoveries. We have deep expertise in cell biology and materials science, which allows us to support our customers from the research lab to the bioproduction suite and now even into drug storage and delivery.
We have a history of innovation with some of the most notable events being the role our PYREX® labware played in the production of penicillin in the 1930s and the polio vaccine in the 1950s. Today, we continue to look at new material substrates and equipment platforms for cell culture and production to support the cutting-edge work our customers are doing in areas like cancer research and cell and gene therapy development.
Some of those technologies were acquired to optimize the Corning Life Sciences (CLS) product offering. We have evolved from being a glassware company to offering a variety of cell culture platforms and surface chemistries supporting a wide variety of life sciences applications.
DA: How have the mission and vision for Corning Life Sciences evolved over that history, and how would you characterize them today?
JT: While our product mix has evolved continuously to meet the life sciences landscape, our mission and vision has remained consistent — to enable the scientific community to harness the power of cells — to solve the unsolvable in their labs and make real progress toward longer, healthier human lives.
We look to empower scientists by delivering high-quality, innovative tools that include cultureware and lab staples that perform consistently; tools like Matrigel® matrix to create organoid models for precision medicine research; and high-yield, small-footprint Corning® HYPERStack® cell culture vessels for cell and gene therapy applications. And we are able to deliver them to scientists wherever they are around the world. That ability is unique and is made possible by Corning’s global supply chain capabilities and our unparalleled distribution network.
Today, we work more closely than ever with customers to help them solve their problems. We have evolved from being a basic supplier to a true partner, committed to a high level of engagement and collaboration.
John “Yoshi” Shyu (JS): I will add that not only are the tools CLS provides innovative and high quality, but often they can deliver more reliable and consistent performance.
DA: Why do you think enabling partners like CLS are more critical to innovation in the space than ever before?
JS: What we have seen across research fields –– particularly now in the cell and gene therapy space –– is the same challenges are popping up across different organizations. In some of these instances, best practices have not yet been established, so the scientific community needs to look outside of their organizations for input and answers — sharing at industry events or working with suppliers who have a broader view across the entire life sciences landscape. Customers bring their challenges to us, and we share our knowledge. Together, we innovate to develop new protocols and solve problems faster.
As a result, the innovation at CLS is really driven by our customers. We take the time to understand their challenges in order to make better products that can help accelerate research and enable the efficient development of novel therapies.
JT: Customer collaboration is essential to our business. We learn from them, and then, through Yoshi’s scientific field applications team and our other technical experts, customers can learn from us. It’s a true ecosystem that keeps the science advancing forward.
One example is in the area of 3D cell culture. We have created a sense of community in this field with a high level of information sharing, through events like our annual 3D Cell Culture Summit. The summit provides leading researchers with opportunities for networking and making new connections that can be further developed outside of the conference. In fact, we see a lot of trends emerging out of those summits. It really is about helping our customers make connections to advance the science.
DA: How would you characterize the key attributes or the personality of the Corning Life Sciences brand? How much of that is consistent with the legacy Corning brand, and what is unique to CLS?
JT: The three attributes at the core of CLS are also at the core of Corning Incorporated,
Innovation: You can’t succeed for over 100 years without continually innovating and evolving. It’s essential to stay relevant in this rapidly changing environment.
Collaboration: We stay close to our customers to better understand their objectives and the challenges they need to overcome. That feeds our innovation engine. We also need to make sure that we collaborate with our distribution partners and other suppliers. Again, if we’re going to keep advancing science forward, we need each other in this global scientific community to keep the pace.
Science at the center: We have to stay focused on what we know — materials science and cell biology. Corning and CLS have expertise in these areas, and they really converge in our product offerings. Our deep understanding of these two areas allows us to continue delivering value to our customers in both research and bioproduction. In fact, many customers keep coming back to us for that material science expertise because it is unique and allows us to develop truly differentiated products to meet evolving needs.
JS: I want to reemphasize the importance of CLS’s ability to change as science evolves. For instance, as cell lines change and researchers use stem cells and other cell types, CLS has been able to rapidly respond with better platforms and advanced surfaces that enable these cellular systems to truly manifest their potential.
DA: How do you view the awareness and perception of the brand among existing and potential customers across the different spaces in which you operate?
JS: Because we have been in the lab for over 100 years, many scientists’ initial connection was with our PYREX glassware and more recently our plastic cultureware — our pipettes, tubes, cell culture flasks, and so on. There is good reason for that, as Corning cultureware can be found in all leading life science labs across the globe.
Other customers know us for more advanced tools, such as Matrigel matrix for 3D cell culture models in areas like cancer research, and in the bioproduction suite for cell and gene therapy platforms.
We are one of the largest lab suppliers in the world, but we continue to build awareness around our advanced solutions. I head up our scientific team, and we spend a lot of time educating our customers face-to-face in their labs, at industry events and through digital means. We share information on the systems and tools we have to support our customers, as well as on trends, best practices, and both operational and biological optimizations that can help them in their day-to-day work.
JT: Over the last several years, CLS has brought very strong talent into our field applications groups and other scientific support functions to help customers to fully understand the protocols associated with our tools and products.
DA: Can you elaborate a bit on your R&D strategy? Does anticipating customer needs require working closely with academic groups at the cutting edge of things in addition to more established companies?
JS: Corning partners with many academic labs. We also partner with biotechs and small molecule pharmaceutical companies. Without those close connections, we would be blind to the different challenges facing each of those important sectors. The dialogue we have with these groups helps us create the best solutions, because no one organization knows everything, and while they do share information, it can be somewhat limited.
Through customer collaborations, CLS can coalesce that information to develop innovative products to address a wide variety of challenges. We provide the platform or consumable as well as the technical advice and scientific knowledge that can enhance and improve their processes.
In addition to customer connections, we also stay engaged with industry trends through industry conferences and reviewing scientific literature. This provide us with a good sense of where the market is going and what infrastructure will be required to deliver solutions that will meet those future needs.
DA: How do you see CLS most differentiated from your major peers and competitors?
JT: We’ve been at this a long time —longer than just about anyone in the space. We have some of the most trusted brands in the industry in Corning, Falcon®, PYREX®, and Axygen®. We also have a huge breadth of products — over 30,000. But it’s not simply the number of products we have; it’s the quality and consistency of the products, along with the linear scalability of our platforms. Scientists need to know that the tools they are using will function the way they expect them to, every time.
With industry consolidation over the years, we are finding ourselves in the unique position of being large enough to have a robust and global manufacturing and distribution footprint but still small and agile enough that we can partner with our customers in the trenches to solve problems.
DA: What can you share about the company’s plans to further support upstream bioproduction for advanced therapies?
JS: We have been in the bioproduction space for decades, but with the cell and gene therapy market expanding rapidly, there is tremendous opportunity for Corning to support this industry with our expertise in cell biology and materials science and apply it to the development challenges.
We have been able to provide consistent and modular platforms from the research bench to the bioproduction suite — offering platform fidelity from start-up to scale-up. This continuity saves our customers time, improves efficiency, and supports consistently optimal outputs (like high yields) across a number of cell and gene therapy applications. My team often works hand-in-hand with our customers to define their processes and ensure that they have the right tools to be successful.
We have a strong history of intensifying cell culture platforms for adherent cells to produce higher yields in compact footprints. The HYPER technology underlying our HYPERFlask® and HYPERStack vessels is unmatched in terms of efficient productivity in a planar platform. Our new Ascent® Fixed Bed Reactor system is game-changing for applications that benefit from adherent cell culture environment by allowing scalability that previously could only be attained in suspension tanks. Ascent provides linear scalability from process development scale to manufacturing scale (1 m2 to 1,000 m2). That represents a significant opportunity for CLS to expand our reach into the manufacturing suite.
DA: Are there particular sectors or modalities (e.g., stem cell therapy, exosomes, extracellular vesicles) that you feel CLS can support particularly well?
JS: Across cell and gene therapy, there are some common areas where Corning can support our customers. Having platform fidelity as you scale is important and can reduce or eliminate bridging studies, saving time and money. We’ve also seen there is no one-size-fits-all approach and that having flexibility and modularity in system platforms is essential — even better if you can grow more cells in a smaller footprint. Cost efficiencies are another common concern, and that’s where closed systems can be a cost-effective alternative to working in a cleanroom space. Lastly, being able to find and adopt technologies quickly is another important factor.
In particular with advanced therapies, we know that stem cells hold exceptional promise in areas like tissue engineering, cancer immunotherapies, and rare diseases, but they can be challenging to optimize in an expansion environment. Stem cells tend to behave better in adherent platforms, and this is an area where Corning can provide products and expertise to support the development of promising therapies.
Another area of tremendous potential is 3D cell culture in cancer research — from more in vivo–like disease models to more predictive drug screening and now precision medicine. Corning has been an advocate and early adopter of 3D technologies, and we continue to innovate as adoption and needs grow — from high-throughput screening solutions to bioprinting.
DA: Is there anything you can share about how CLS and/or the industry as a whole weathered the supply chain challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, whether those have been fully resolved, and the lessons learned along the way?
JT: We learned a lot during the pandemic, as did most every other company in life sciences. We saw record demand for some products, as well as raw material shortages across the board. We had to reprioritize to deliver a huge increase in COVID-related products to serve vaccine research, bioproduction, and diagnostics and to deliver vaccines to patients (more than a billion doses in Corning glass vials). We were impacted by supply chain disruptions, of course, just like many other life science suppliers and many other industries beyond ours.
But through these disruptions and challenges, we took it as an opportunity to invest and optimize nearly every aspect of our operations, from making quality products to putting them into the hands of our customers as quickly and efficiently as possible. In all, we’ve invested more than $500 million to expand manufacturing capacity in the last few years. These investments are critical to enabling us to meet long-term demand and provide our customers the supply assurance they need to do their work without interruption.
Another important lesson from the pandemic was to put people first. We prioritized protecting our people and preserving the Corning culture while working tirelessly to overcome so many pandemic-related challenges. The pandemic also forced us to think differently, and I am really proud of how our organization has shown our resilience.
DA: Are there important aspects of the full scope of the CLS offering that we haven’t touched upon or any other important products that merit mention beyond what we discussed earlier?
JT: One thing I wanted to touch on is our commitment to sustainability. It’s one of the biggest issues our customers ask about, given that we make consumables. We know this is increasingly important, and we have taken actions to address this today and in the future. At present, this means considering sustainability in everything we do and moving forward in three primary focus areas: climate initiatives, designing products and processes with sustainable intent, and stewardship. Corning is ranked among the top 25 companies in the United States for solar power capacity. We offer more than 3,000 SKUs that are covered by renewable energy certificates that can help organizations meet their sustainability goals. We have implemented a recycling and takeback program for product packaging. We are also engaging across functionalities and with our competitors, customers, and academic institutions to identify additional opportunities for improvement. Sustainability is now being integrated into our daily operations — from product design to our manufacturing processes and beyond. We want to continue to work with our customers to find more ways to improve.
DA: What do you anticipate as the most notable or transformative changes the industry will undergo in the coming years? How is CLS strategizing to take advantage of those changes and new opportunities?
JS: We have seen an increased focus on biologically based vaccines and therapeutics, such as cell and gene therapies. With this ramped up demand, biotechs and biopharma are looking for platforms that are flexible across applications but can deliver the cell yield and scale required to deliver these therapies to market. Some solutions exist, but there is still much opportunity to innovate and improve upon current technologies and to introduce new innovations.
JT: From the perspective of Corning Life Sciences, as a company that has been through over 100 years of life sciences trends, this is exactly the kind of challenge we like to see, and we are excited to face it and to continue to help the field advance.