Beyond immunotherapy: Xconomy forum covers breadth of Seattle’s life sciences scene

Xconomy forum highlights research in vaccines, organ transplants, big data, more
Dr. Cameron Turtle addresses audience at Xconomy life sciences forum
Immunotherapy researcher Dr. Cameron Turtle addresses a sold-out audience at Xconomy's annual Seattle life sciences forum "Life Sciences Disruptors," held at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center Monday. Photo by William Wright / Fred Hutch News Service

It was a dizzying round-up of Seattle’s life sciences research and biotech scene, from designer proteins to the looming threat of the Zika virus.

Xconomy’s annual Seattle life sciences forum kicked off Monday afternoon with a nod by organizer and Xconomy national biotech editor Alex Lash to the region’s breadth and depth of medical and biology research and technology.

“What’s happening in Seattle? What I always find interesting is the intersections. It’s a small town compared to some of the other biotech centers,” said Lash, who chose the speakers for the event, held for three years running at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “You have global health meeting life science start-ups, you have big data meeting clinical research, all these different connections.”

This year’s forum was titled “Life Sciences Disruptors,” though Lash and the other speakers didn’t focus on the technology buzzword theme, but if there was one common thread to the afternoon’s whirlwind tour of Seattle’s public and private life sciences work it was the new and unexpected — and a look to the future of healthcare.

Dr. Niki Robinson speaking at Xconomy forum
Fred Hutch vice president of business development and industry relations Dr. Niki Robinson introduced the Xconomy forum Photo by William Wright / Fred Hutch News Service

Fred Hutch vice president of business development and industry relations Dr. Niki Robinson introduced the forum.

“This is a perfect backdrop for things that you’re going to hear about today because, for those of you who may know the Hutch, we’re big and bold here,” Robinson said.

A taste of immunotherapy

While in years past, immunotherapy was a key focus of the forums, Monday's presentations and panels touched on this research area as well as many others.

Biotech Celgene’s chief scientific officer Dr. Rob Hershberg, Fred Hutch immunotherapy researcher Dr. Cameron Turtle and Seattle Children’s gene therapy expert Dr. Andrew Scharenberg gave short presentations on immunotherapy. The therapeutic area encompasses a wide range of approaches that harness the body’s own immune system to battle disease — it’s typically referred to in the context of cancer treatment, but not all Monday’s speakers focused exclusively on cancer.

  • Turtle gave an overview of the Fred Hutch T-cell therapy trial that he leads along with immunotherapy researcher Dr. David Maloney and which is showing promising early results for patients with a certain type of leukemia — 93 percent of patients with advanced B-cell acute lymphocytic leukemia treated on the trial went into complete remission after receiving an infusion of T cells engineered to recognize and attack their cancers. “It’s still going to take a long time to find out exactly where this is going to fit into other therapies and whether this will be a stand-alone therapy, but it really has been very, very effective in these patients,” Turtle said.
  • Scharenberg described a different type of T-cell therapy for medical scenarios he called “the yang to cancer’s yin” — conditions like organ transplants and auto-immune disorders where the body’s immune system can attack healthy organs. Currently, organ transplant recipients take immune-suppressing drugs that allow them to receive the donor organ but which can have significant side effects if taken for long periods, Scharenberg said. His team hopes to genetically engineer T cells to “restore balance intolerance for these patients,” he said.
  • Hershberg helped launch Celgene’s Seattle site, which focuses on immuno-oncology (immunotherapy focused on cancer treatment). Their goal is translation to the clinic. "With 500 ongoing trials in immuno-oncology, if you don’t know how to translate your scientific discoveries into defined clinical trials, you will rapidly lose,” Hershberg said. He also predicted that the immunotherapy field will increasingly need to consider the “tumor microenvironment,” the specific non-cancerous cells and molecules surrounding each patient’s tumors and which heavily influence whether a given immunotherapy will work for that patient or not. Researchers are working to make that environment more favorable for emerging immunotherapies, he said.

The best of the rest

In the rest of the forum, Xconomy's Lash and other organizers moderated panel discussions of researchers and tech executives from different life sciences organizations. Some of the highlights of the panels included:

Hope for AIDS and Zika vaccines: Vaccine experts including HIV vaccine researcher Dr. Larry Corey, Infectious Disease Research Institute vaccine expert Dr. Rhea Coler, and Just Biotherapeutics’ CEO Dr. Jim Thomas spoke on a panel titled “From AIDS to Zika.”

Both Coler and Corey expressed hope that a Zika vaccine should be within our reach. Coler’s team is developing a vaccine for the mosquito-borne West Nile virus and said that because the two viruses are related, they may be able to apply what they know to a Zika vaccine. Viruses like Zika are very different from lifelong infections like HIV, Corey said. Because our bodies know how to mount an immune response — people don’t get infected with Zika twice — that means a working vaccine is an attainable goal, he said.

“It’s less a science issue than how do you muster the resources to make a vaccine. That’s more of a development structure issue. We have a really broken system in the area of creating vaccines,” Corey said. With HIV, the challenge is both scientific and industrial, he said.

Corey also briefly described the HIV Vaccine Trials Network’s latest foray into HIV prevention, a clinical trial across three continents called the AMP study that aims to test whether weekly infusions of broadly neutralizing antibodies can protect against HIV infection.

Transforming data sharing: Also featured was a conversation about data sharing for medical sciences with Sage Bionetworks scientist Brian Bot and Fred Hutch CIO Matthew Trunnell. Both big data experts agreed that researchers aren’t yet at the point where genetic data is transforming precision medicine decisions on a large scale, but they have hope for the path ahead.

“There’s so much enthusiasm about taking genomics into the clinic. Yet we’re still really struggling with some of the basics of understanding the data the way we’re generating these data now,” Trunnell said. “I think we’re at a relatively early stage but I honestly think it goes quickly from this point.”

Engineering proteins to protect: University of Washington’s Dr. David Baker and his colleagues gave an overview of the future of protein engineering. Baker leads the UW’s Institute for Protein Design and has had a hand in a number of different protein design and engineering projects. Researchers from Baker’s team who spoke included Dr. Ingrid Swanson Pultz, who’s developing a special enzyme called KumaMax that works to dissolve gluten in the stomach as a therapy for people with celiac disease, and Dr. Aaron Chevalier, who is working on a designed antibody to protect against a broad range of flu viruses.

Join the conversation. Talk about this story on our Facebook page.

Rachel Tompa is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. She has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of California, San Francisco and a certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Follow her on Twitter @Rachel_Tompa.

Related News

All news
93 percent of advanced leukemia patients in remission after immunotherapy ‘Exciting’ but early results from trial of engineered immune cells April 25, 2016
A new path to an AIDS vaccine? A ‘landmark’ clinical trial called the AMP study launches on three continents to test HIV-blocking super antibodies April 7, 2016
'A tidal wave coming': Xconomy Forum focuses on promising treatments Immunotherapy a key topic at sold-out discussion on the role of biotech in Seattle May 7, 2015

Help Us Eliminate Cancer

Every dollar counts. Please support lifesaving research today.