Argos breaks ground on Durham manufacturing facility

Argos Therapeutics took a $56.6 million symbolic leap of faith Tuesday, breaking ground on a 97,500-square foot facility that it hopes will one day manufacture a cutting-edge cancer therapy that is still awaiting approval from federal regulators.

“We’re celebrating today, but we’re not quite there yet,” Argos CEO Jeff Abbey said before he and several business partners and local officials put ceremonial shovels into the ground.

Argos, currently located on Technology Drive in northern Durham, is in the final, “Phase 3,” stage of clinical tests for its first product: a kidney-cancer treatment custom made for each patient who uses it.

“It will be a game-changer in cancer therapy,” Abbey said.

The company received $7.1 million in state and local incentives to build its new headquarters and manufacturing plant at the site on T.W. Alexander Drive near Research Triangle Park. The company must meet investment and hiring milestones to receive the money.

The facility is expected to employ about 325 people, including 236 new jobs that will pay an average salary of about $79,000 per year. The company’s local incentives include $925,000 from Durham County and $924,676 from the city of Durham.

“I’m gratified to see Argos grow in Durham,” said Michael Page, chairman of the Durham board of county commissioners. “This expansion offers an excellent return on investment with respect to job creation and revenue generation.”

Page, who is pastor of Antioch Baptist Church, said he hopes Argos’s new treatment “can show so much promise to lessen the pain and suffering of patients with kidney cancer.”

The therapy – “It’s not a drug,” Abbey noted – is based in large part on research done at Duke University in the 1990s.

“What Argos has achieved is really remarkable,” said Bill Bullock, vice president of the N.C. Biotechnology Center. “When you take university technology and get it into Phase 3 clinical trials, it’s really nothing short of heroic in today’s pharmaceutical environment.”

Argos’s product, called AGS-003, is “fully personalized immunotherapy,” Abbey said after the ceremony.

The therapy involves taking cancer cells and white blood cells from a patient, he said, and extracting RNA from the cancer which “gives us a perfect match to the patient’s disease.”

“From those white blood cells, we make what are called ‘dendritic‘ cells,” Abbey said. “The job of the dendritic cell is to tell the ‘T cells,’ the killer cells, what to kill.”

The resulting dendritic cells are the company’s product. “We put that back into the patient and now you have these fully armed dendritic cells in the patient, telling T cells what to kill.”

A patient takes the therapy in a series of injections over a period of months.

“It’s very simple. It’s like getting a flu shot,” Abbey said. “If you get that immune response going it seems you can get this really long term benefit where basically the immune system is controlling the cancer.

“We haven’t had a patient yet (in clinical trials) where it’s been completely eliminated ... but they’re living healthy, normal lives.”

The therapy is currently being developed only for kidney cancer, but it could be adapted for any form of the disease, Abbey said.

Argos was incorporated in 1998, and completed an initial public offering of stock in February, raising $45 million at $8 a share. The company’s shares closed Tuesday at $9.11, up 11 cents.

Argos plan is to have the new facility ready to start production as soon as the Food and Drug Administration clears Argos’s product for the market, which Abbey said he expects will happen by mid-2017.

Abbey acknowledged it’s a “huge leap of faith” for a company to start construction on a production facility before its first product has been approved. But, for a public company, it’s important to be ready to start production as soon as the therapy is approved, he said.

“My mantra has become ‘here’s a fine line between tenacity and insanity,’ ” Abbey said, “and we’ve crossed both sides of that line many times. But I think we’re safe now.”