As chief information officer of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Matthew Trunnell is amazed at the wealth of cloud computing talent gathering and building new offices in Seattle.
“At Fred Hutch we are within walking distance to Amazon,” he said at a Seattle conference, “but if you try to walk there you’d trip into the hole where Google is going.”
Amazon, Microsoft and Google are now giants in cloud computing, a technology that allows their customers to store and analyze vast amounts of data without having to buy the computer hardware to handle it. The Seattle area is also home to scores of smaller biotechnology and computer technology companies who are finding common ground in the cloud.
This convergence of data science, technology and bioscience was on everyone’s mind as Trunnell and more than 500 other leaders in the medical research and tech community met this week for the 18th annual Life Science Innovation Northwest conference at the Washington State Convention Center.
The talk of the conference was all about the need for partnership and collaboration, because medical research — cancer research in particular — is increasingly driven by data. A treasure-trove of such data is being unearthed at the Hutch and elsewhere as an array of new laboratory technologies are probing the genetic roots of diseases and of the immune system.
Trunnell and Dr. Gary Gilliland, president and director of Fred Hutch, each hosted lunchtime panels during the two-day conference discussing how the medical science and tech communities of the region are increasingly working together.
“One of the ways we differentiate ourselves in Seattle from the rest of the planet is the unique congruence of life science capabilities and tech,’’ said Gilliland. He moderated a discussion between Chad Robins, chief executive officer of Hutch spin-off Adaptive Biotechnologies, of Seattle, and Dr. Peter Lee, corporate vice president for artificial intelligence and research at Microsoft, in Redmond, Washington.
The two companies are collaborating to apply Microsoft’s artificial intelligence technologies in its cloud-computing product, Azure, to help Adaptive develop a kind of digitized map of the human immune system.
Using DNA sequencing, Adaptive scientists are matching “receptor” molecules, found on the surfaces of disease-fighting blood components such as T cells, with “antigens,” which are bits of telltale proteins that show up on the surfaces of diseased cells. When a T-cell receptor connects to a matching antigen on a cancer cell, the T cell can wipe out the cancer cell.
Those fateful molecular matches are at the heart of a revolution in cancer involving immunotherapy, the harnessing of the human immune system to fight disease. There are billions of such potential matches, so it takes enormous computing capacity to keep track of them and visualize them in something resembling a map. That is where Microsoft’s cloud capabilities come into play.
Microsoft’s Lee compared the handling and analyzing of that much data to the problems solved by computer programs that power web searches or translate, say, Italian into Mandarin. He wants to apply an artificial intelligence strategy called machine learning to help build the immune system map, and then help Adaptive use it to flag the early presence of different diseases. Instead of trying to detect the disease itself, the system will scout the map for pattern changes, digital signals that may be as distinctive as fingerprints marking early immune responses to threats such as ovarian cancer.
“It’s one of the most beautifully set-up machine learning problems that I have been presented with in my entire career,” Lee said.
In an earlier panel at the conference, Trunnell moderated a discussion among tech and health experts about the benefits of bioscience–data science partnerships. “The question is: How can we connect with these companies to make our research go faster?” he said.
One panel responder was Neal Myrick, director of the Tableau Foundation, an offshoot of Seattle-based Tableau Software, a maker of data visualization products. He described how he formed a partnership with seven small companies to assist Seattle-based global health nonprofit PATH develop a program to eliminate malaria in Zambia.
“I’m increasingly convinced that partnerships are absolutely required to do these big things,” said Trunnell. “Eliminating malaria in a country, curing cancer — these are things that no one group is able to do by themselves.”
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, addressing the conference on Tuesday, stressed the value of a different sort of partnership: the rapport she has with Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, Republican chair of the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. She is the ranking Democrat on the committee. Working together, they shepherded passage of the 21st Century Cures Act and the FDA reauthorization act. Both offer “important new funds for research, new pathways for entrepreneurship and new opportunities for the life sciences industry to grow,” she said.
Murray spoke of how Bothell, Washington, has grown “from a town of 1,000 where I grew up to a bustling city of 44,000” in large part due to the location there of 50 life sciences companies. She also lauded the example of Fred Hutch’s Dr. E. Donnall Thomas, who won the Nobel Prize for the development of bone marrow transplantation to cure blood cancers.
“We should be lifting up the inspiring stories of the life sciences in Washington state and the families who benefit from it every day,” she said. “Our kids need to hear these stories. They need to know it came from here.”
The following day, former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire — who is chair of the Fred Hutch Board of Trustees — also praised the life sciences industry for its contribution to the region’s economy. Gregoire is chief executive officer for Challenge Seattle, a private sector initiative working to develop a regional economic development strategy. The group is promoting a concept called the Cascadia Innovation Corridor stretching from Vancouver, British Columbia, through Seattle to Portland. “We’ll be working with you on how to enhance life sciences in the whole Cascadia Corridor,” she said.
Gregoire also offered some friendly but pointed advice: “To be successful, we have to get out of our humbleness; and we have been disastrously humble. We have to tell our story.”
She said the histories of Boeing, Nordstrom, Costco, Microsoft, Amazon and REI are underplayed and misunderstood outside the Pacific Northwest. She compared Washington, D.C., to Washington state. “One is a place that gets nothing done, and takes a lot of credit. The other is a place that gets a whole lot done and gets little credit,” she said. “We’re too humble.”
Along with thoughtful panels and a lunchtime awards ceremony in which Hutch scientists Drs. Lee Hartwell and Denise Galloway were inducted into the Washington Life Sciences Hall of Fame, the conference featured nearly 50 short podium presentations on local biotech and digital health startups.
The conference also drew life sciences hopefuls who pitched their bioscience brainstorms to a panel of industry investors, entrepreneurs and strategic partners Tuesday night. The contestants gave 60-second spiels on everything from germ-fighting “jackets” for cell phones, to an anti-opioid-overdose implant, to a tourniquet with cooling capabilities to prevent amputations. The $5,000 prize went to Tasso, for its consumer-operated blood-draw device. The audience choice, which received $1,000, was MedsForAll for its affordable epinephrine auto-injector.
Sabin Russell is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and wrote extensively about infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Health Affairs. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has written extensively about health issues for NBC News, TODAY, CNN, MSN, Seattle Magazine and other publications. A breast cancer survivor, she blogs at doublewhammied.com and tweets @double_whammied. Email her at email@example.com.