Lilly Patches Up Relationships in Seattle Biotech, Pushes TB Drug Discovery

10/7/08Follow @xconomy

Eli Lilly did some fence-mending today with the Seattle biotech community. Almost two years ago, the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical giant took over Icos, the Northwest’s most valuable biotech company, grabbing the billion-dollar erectile dysfunction drug it created and sending 365 talented local workers to the unemployment lines. It’s a story you often see with big drugmakers that need to replenish empty pipelines with drugs from smaller biotechs to keep pumping out the profits investors demand.

Yet Lilly is planting some interesting seeds for the future of Seattle biotech that could ultimately mean a lot more for human health than a new lifestyle drug. This morning I stopped by a press conference at the Seattle Life Sciences Center on First Hill (next door to the Xconomy offices) to learn more about The Lilly TB Drug Discovery Initiative.

This effort got its start a year ago with $9 million of drug-screening equipment that Lilly acquired from Icos, had no use for anymore, and subsequently donated to the Infectious Disease Research Institute (IDRI) in Seattle. Lilly then donated another $6 million in cash (to be doled out over five years) to start the organization. Lilly and fellow pharma giant Merck contributed 500,000 small-molecule chemical compounds for screening as tuberculosis drug candidates, and three veteran Icos scientists—Ed Kesicki, Allen Casey, and Joshua Odingo—all decided to devote the next chapter of their careers to this TB effort. They’ve been joined by Tanya Parish, an expert in TB genetics from Queen Mary’s School of Medicine in London. They’re also being assisted by a half-dozen microbiologists at the IDRI, the nonprofit center led by Xconomist Steve Reed.

This effort is about developing new drugs to treat people infected with TB, so it’s distinct from the other local vaccine development initiatives at IDRI and Seattle Biomedical Research Institute.

“About one-third of the world’s population is already infected, so a vaccine won’t help those people,” Parish says about the need for new drugs.

Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection that is treated with a six-month regimen of decades-old antibiotics. It involves two months on four drugs, and four more months on two other drugs, Parish says. If you’ve got the multi-drug resistant strain of TB, treatment can take 12 to 18 months, and the cure rate drops significantly, she says. Getting people to stay disciplined on this regimen, not surprisingly, is difficult, which only helps the bug to flourish. And while the existing drugs are effective for the vast majority of patients, there’s an increasing number with the extremely drug resistant, and contagious, form of TB—like the kind Atlanta attorney Andrew Speaker was briefly thought to have—who can end up hospitalized and isolated for months, Parish says.

The need for new TB treatments has been drummed into the public consciousness by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, but it bears some repeating. TB is one of the biggest killers in the world today, causing 1.5 million deaths every year, or 5,000 people a day, mostly in developing countries. New small molecules are seen as a critical weapon to combat this disease, because they can be taken orally, don’t need refrigeration, and can be cheaply and easily mass-produced in the developing world.

This Lilly-sponsored effort to find new drugs is still clearly in its infancy. … Next Page »

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