LONDON (Reuters) - General Electric's healthcare unit aims to build a $1 billion business offering vital manufacturing tools for a coming wave of cell therapies, helped by the acquisition of a Swiss firm that doubles its presence in the field.

Using cells to fight cancer is a long way from GE's better-known areas like power generation and aviation, but the head of the U.S. industrial giant's $18 billion-a-year healthcare operation sees a big, high-margin opportunity.

John Flannery, who leads GE Healthcare from its headquarters in Chalfont St Giles, England, reckons he has secured an important part of the supply chain by buying Biosafe Group, a supplier of cell processing systems.

"We want to double down on life sciences, and especially so in the cell therapy business," he said in an interview.

"This more than doubles our capability right now in cell therapy and we think we can easily have a $1 billion-plus business in cell therapy in the next 10 years."

GE announced its acquisition of Biosafe on Wednesday but declined to say how much it was paying. A spokesman said the addition of the firm, which was established in 1997, would bring 85 new employees and around 230 customers, doubling GE's cell therapy staff and sales.

The acquisition comes at a testing moment for cell therapy, following the deaths of three leukemia patients in a trial of Juno Therapeutics' treatment JCAR015, which caused the study to be briefly put on hold by U.S. regulators.

GE's confidence in the technology remains intact, however.

"People are still learning, obviously. But this doesn't change our view that cell therapy is going to be fundamentally transformative in healthcare," Flannery said.

The first so-called CAR-T cell therapies could reach the market as soon as next year, with products from Juno, Kite Pharma and Novartis among the most advanced.

They have delivered remarkable results in early trials against blood cancers, eliminating all trace of leukemia and lymphoma in some patients who had run out of other options, and investors have poured billions of dollars into the field.

GE estimates there are now 375 active T-cell therapy programs, and seven companies with a market value of $17 billion focused on CAR-T.

Extremely Complex

Producing the therapies, however, is extremely complex, since it involves extracting cells from an individual patient, altering them to sharpen their ability to kill cancer cells and then infusing them back into the patient.

This, effectively, makes the production process an integral part of the product, which is where GE comes in.

While GE has no intention of ever marketing medicines, it plans to offer an "end-to-end" service to drug companies via a range of tools, from bioreactors for growing cells to software systems for treatment delivery.

Internal GE research suggests that sales of cell therapies will reach $10 billion by 2020 and $30 billion by 2030, assuming an average treatment cost of around $250,000 a patient.

Some analysts have suggested the cost could be as much as $500,000 - posing a big challenge to stretched healthcare budgets - but Flannery said economies of scale from standardized production systems would kick in over time.

The logistical challenges of processing cells from individual patients have prompted some scientists and companies to take a different approach by trying to make standardized therapies from donor cells, on which GE is also working.

GE's drive into cell therapy parallels its established role in bioprocessing for biotechnology drugs. All eight of the new antibody drugs approved in the United States last year, for example, use GE technologies.

Recently, GE has taken bioprocessing a step further by offering prefabricated modules for building biopharmaceutical factories, with the first such so-called KUBio factory shipped to China last year.

Ultimately, Flannery wants to see the same turnkey approach applied to cell therapy.

(Editing by Susan Fenton)