To speed the delivery of new vaccines and treatments for infectious diseases to the marketplace, academic and business communities need to collaborate, said researchers and executives at a daylong Infectious Disease Summit hosted yesterday in Seattle by Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
“We can’t do this alone,” said Dr. Gary Gilliland, president and director of Fred Hutch, at the opening of the conference. “We need each other to support true partnerships that can translate our discoveries into products.”
Fred Hutch organized the summit with New Jersey pharmaceuticals maker Merck & Co., which, like the Hutch, is heavily engaged in research on both cancer and infectious diseases. Gilliland has a background in both academic and industry research; from 2009 to 2013 he headed Merck’s global oncology research.
He noted that about 20 percent of all cancers worldwide are caused by pathogens, and that “connecting the dots” between viruses and the cancers they cause can create “an extraordinary opportunity for prevention and therapy.”
A case in point: the pioneering studies of Hutch researcher Dr. Denise Galloway on human papillomavirus, work that eventually led to the introduction of an HPV vaccine, Merck’s Gardasil 9, which can prevent most cervical cancers and may reduce a variety of oral and anogenital cancers linked to the virus.
Dr. Alex Szidon, associate vice president for Business Development & Licensing at Merck in San Francisco, underscored the importance of partnerships with academic research institutions and smaller biotechnology companies. “More than half of our revenue comes from ‘partnered’ products,” he said. Last year Merck’s worldwide revenues were more than $40 billion.
He noted that Fred Hutch and Merck are working together in six clinical trials of potential new drugs and have six sponsored-research agreements.
Szidon cited early Fred Hutch research to reduce the risk of infection for vulnerable bone marrow transplant patients as crucial to the success of the procedure, which has now been performed on well over 1 million patients. With the advent CAR T-cell therapies that harness the human immune system to fight cancer, new challenges are arising. “This is the spot where innovation is going to happen to manage those infectious disease risks,” he said.
Dr. Daria Hazuda, vice president for infectious diseases discovery and chief scientific officer at Merck’s Exploratory Sciences Center in Cambridge, MA, said the company is deeply committed to its internal research efforts, but she also stressed the importance of partnerships. “None of the things we could do would be possible without collaboration with external biotech and the academic community,” she said.
Those interested in battling infectious diseases in developing countries also benefit from partnerships with foundations, academic research centers and industry, according to panelists at the event. Support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was crucial to Just Biotherapeutics, said Dr. Carolina Rizo, chief business officer of the four-year-old Seattle startup that is working to make costly monoclonal antibody drugs more affordable and accessible to developing countries. “The beauty of collaborating with partners is when you share with them your mission,’’ she said. The mission of her company, she said, “is to democratize biotherapeutics,” to produce them more quickly, at lower cost, without sacrificing quality.
Partnerships to fight infectious diseases in developing countries can also help address public health issues at home, said Steve Schwartz, a spokesman for Tableau, a Seattle-based producer of data visualization software. Tableau has partnered with its Seattle neighbor PATH, a nonprofit focused on global health, on a program to eliminate malaria in Zambia. Working with the health ministry there, Tableau realized they needed to add an email alert system for health workers in remote areas to guide ministry resources to malarial hotspots. “We’ve built VizAlerts into our products,” he said, referring to Tableau’s email-alert network. “And now we are working with a group out of Cincinnati that is trying to replicate a lot of what we’ve learned in Zambia to the opioid epidemic in Ohio.”
This cross-fertilization of ideas also plays out directly in the relationship of research in infectious diseases and cancer. Both fields require a deeper understanding of the human immune system, and discoveries about microbes — whether they are hostile pathogens or the communities of friendly bacteria that comprise our gut microbiome — can have a big impact on prevention and treatment of cancer or the development of immunotherapies.
“These fields are all converging,” said Fred Hutch Dr. Niki Robinson, vice president of Business Development & Strategy at Fred Hutch.
That seemed to be the consensus of a panel of investors and venture capitalists.
“Several folks have potential infectious disease therapies that modulate the immune system. That’s where things are going,” said Mark Chin, investment director for Arix Biosciences, a global venture investor in promising start-ups.
“At the end of the day, every disease will probably be treated on some sort of immunological basis,” said Dr. Jay Parrish, chief business officer of San Francisco-based VIR, which also hunts for innovators in infectious disease research.
“In terms of pharma, I see a blurring of the lines and believe that immune modulation will be transformative across the board,” said panel moderator Angele Maki, executive director for business development & licensing at Merck’s West Coast Innovation Hub. “If you are going to coach someone on where to go in grad school, it should probably be to focus in one of these areas.”
Dr. Charlotte Hubbert, a partner in Gates Foundation Venture Capital, singled out the Hutch’s Business Development & Strategy office as an example of how to bring good ideas to market. She sits on an advisory board for the Evergreen Fund, which disburses grants to Hutch scientists who want to develop ideas thought to have commercial potential.
“They are very well-networked,” she said. “The Evergreen Fund itself is an exceptional vehicle, a one-stop-shop for venture capitalists to come in and really see great technology,” she said.
The conference was closed out by Dr. Julie McElrath, senior vice president and director of the Hutch’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division, and holder of the Joel D. Meyers Endowed Chair. She said she is often asked why infectious disease research is carried out in a cancer center.
“They really go hand in hand,” she said. “We need to control infections in cancer patients and we need to prevent infections that lead to cancers.”
Sabin Russell is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and he 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.