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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.