Blake Bergam

Pre-Dark Horse expertise?

I’m a CAR-T cell therapy process engineer.

How did you end up working in cell and gene therapy?

It was almost circumstantial, actually, because I originally wasn’t aware of the field of cell and gene therapy. I started out with a joint interest in biology and engineering (my degree is in bioengineering) and I knew that I wanted to work to better human health somehow.

I live in Seattle and during my first jobs out of college I began seeing a huge push for CAR-T in the area so I started researching. It ended up being an amazing field to begin my career in because the field itself was so new; I didn’t need to learn decades of development history before my ideas could be relevant.

What are your thoughts about the shift in focus from traditional biologics to cell therapies?

Cell therapy is sort of born out of repurposing technologies originally designed with other goals in mind. Repurposing technologies creates a lot of nuance in operations which in turn creates a need for extensive knowledge sharing and rigorous training. Companies that can standardize robust training plans to onboard new operators and share collective knowledge seamlessly will have a big advantage.

How early in your life did you know you wanted to work in science and engineering? Like, were you four years old or in high school or...?

Well, at four years old I wanted to be a taxi driver, so I must have arrived at my current path a little later than that! My dad grew up during the space race and became an aerospace engineer at NASA so I grew up knowing I wanted to be an engineer. I was always interested in technological advancement and was amazed by how we had gone from the first human flight to landing on the moon in 66 years. That kind of progress blows my mind.

With that frame of reference as a kid, I thought by 2021 we’d be able to lie in a hospital bed, type in our disease, and be cured instantly by robotic arms and lasers like in sci-fi movies.

It’s been several decades since the first chemotherapy treatment and versions of chemo are still the standard of care for many cancer indications. There is plenty of work to be done in our field. It’s one of the things that makes me most excited to work at Dark Horse; were able to contribute to the advancement of cutting edge medicines across the whole industry!

It seems like there are different avenues to become an expert in process development. How did that play out for you?

I started in quality assurance operations at a cell therapy manufacturing facility and then moved into the technology development lab. It’s been exceptionally helpful coming from GMP operations because I can translate those constraints to lab scientists and we can design better technologies for end users whose shoes I’ve been in.

What are trends you’re seeing in process development?

Reduction of COGS is always a big focus. If you can reduce the cost to manufacture a drug product then you can reduce the price for the patient. Two areas everyone focuses on are reducing the cost of raw materials and increasing automation to reduce operator time. One way to achieve both of these objectives is to source raw materials in ready-to-use formats. Most vendors sell reagents in vials because it is a convenient vessel to fill and store and is perfectly fine for research use. In order for manufacturing to get a reagent from a vial into a usable format for their process they’ll need to perform open manipulations in a BSC which is time consuming, operator intensive, and takes up facility space that could be better utilized. A more efficient use of resources would be to continue to push suppliers towards providing raw materials in ready to use formats. I think this trend will gain traction as the industry platforms standardize.

What are some of the things you like to do in your spare time?

Several years ago I found out the hard way that recreational, beer league soccer can still result in ER visits. I made the decision to put that sport on hold until average player age > ego and found my way over to trail running. It was great for my mental health during the pandemic lockdowns because it gave me an excuse to go get lost outside for a few hours a week. During the height of the 2020 lockdown I found a virtual race across Tennessee. There’s this race director named Lazarus Lake who puts on the infamous Barkley Marathons and during the pandemic he organized a virtual 635 mile ultra-marathon across the state known as the Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee. It takes place from May to August. I convinced my similarly cooped up friends and family to join me and printed out a map that stretched across my living room wall with our runner place markers plodding along all summer. My fiancée Krissa tolerated it…barely.

What other pandemic coping mechanism did you have?

We had gotten a rescue dog, Willow a couple years before the pandemic and we were so grateful to have her with us. In fact, Krissa now works part time for Three Little Pitties, the rescue organization we adopted her from. Willow’s really taken after us because she’s equally happy running 5 miles in the woods or eating treats on the couch all night.

Blake's Great Race Across Tennessee map close-up

A closeup of Blake’s six-foot long map of the Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee as his friends and family near the finish line.

Blake Bergam and Willow, the rescue pittie

Bonus pup picture! Blake and Willow visit the beer garden at a Seattle Center event.

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