Seattle Has Global Health Muscle, But Needs More Education, Industry Partnerships

10/16/08

What does the global health community in Washington need in order to firmly stake our claim as a world leader in this endeavor? That question will be a central topic next week when nearly 250 leaders from the Seattle area gather at Suncadia Resort in Cle Elum for the Seattle Chamber’s annual Regional Leadership Conference (Oct. 22-24). The focus of this year’s conference is global health research, innovation, distribution, and philanthropy.

The goal of the conference is to provide our regional leaders – including Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, who will be attending along with Gov. Christine Gregoire and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels – with a clear understanding of the importance of the global health sector and the opportunities that it presents. And, we want to leave the conference with marching orders about what needs to be done to ensure our state as a center for excellence in global health.

The question of what the global health community needs has been considered for quite some time by me and my colleagues in the Washington Global Health Alliance. We have generated a framework with four major categories of what is required:

• Increasing marketing, outreach and recruitment activities
• Improving education, training and mentoring opportunities
• Enhancing infrastructure and incentives
• Creating public-private sector partnerships

Along with my colleagues Chris Elias of PATH, Judy Wasserheit of the University of Washington and Guy Palmer of Washington State University, I have been asked to address this issue head-on. The four of us will take part in a panel discussion to present our views and stir the creative juices of attendees with the intent of identifying the best ways to strengthen the global health enterprise in the state.

So what will I say? I will point out that Washington State global health community has made remarkable progress since the 1970s when I started Seattle Biomedical Research Institute. The well-developed health research community welcomed and embraced me, as well as my scientific goals, at a time when America was primarily focused on diseases that directly impacted this country. There was interest — but little research activity — in the global killers that were known at that time as “tropical diseases.”

That all changed with the multiple surges of emerging and re-emerging diseases, the HIV pandemic, the ability of many pathogens to resist common drugs, and economic globalization. As a consequence, awareness of the importance of what is now called “global health” has grown through the years. The fortunate presence of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has further enhanced that awareness. In addition, Washington State possesses superb intellectual capital, the best technologies, and organizations that are committed to this sector. So we are well-positioned to work on developing new solutions to be delivered to improve global health. This has already had significant economic impact in our state – creating new jobs to expand the research infrastructure.

A key factor in this success is the tradition of cooperation and collaboration among the global health organizations, an element that I experienced so keenly when SBRI started. From its inception, SBRI collaborated with University of Washington research faculty and that cooperation was expanded when SBRI first became formally affiliated with the UW in the early 1990s.

SBRI also recognized that the mission of PATH — to deliver appropriate health technologies globally — complemented our mission of scientific discovery. SBRI and PATH shared space years ago, which both of our organizations outgrew. Our vision that SBRI’s discoveries would one day be delivered by PATH is now becoming a reality through our partnership within PATH’s Malaria Vaccine Initiative. SBRI will now be home to one of only four centers in the world that will test malaria vaccine candidates in humans. This cooperative tradition helped each of organization move forward both individually and collectively. And, it is a key advantage in competing with other states and regions.

But, what needs to be done to ensure that Seattle and Washington State remains a, if not the, leading center for global health research?

We have to recruit the best and brightest to join us in our efforts and retain those who are already working in the sector here. We must set the stage so that existing organizations and companies can continue to grow and expand, while attracting other large companies. Having a major for-profit pharmaceutical company make its home in Washington State would create an outlet to move forward the intellectual property created here — not only to development but also to manufacturing and, ultimately, to market with the subsequent mutual benefits for all.

How can we do this? Advocacy and support from our city, regional and state governmental, business and community leaders will be needed. This can lead to the vision for the development of a statewide global health research initiative and a plan which might envision clusters of the component activities. Legislative support for tax incentives, zoning and infrastructure development would be useful in attracting and retaining for-profit companies and supporting the growth of the sector. Developing such policy and government initiatives to promote global health growth would demonstrate that the commitment that our state has in becoming a major force.

We must strengthen our educational efforts to develop the next generation of global health citizens of the world, as well as the scientists who can continue our efforts. We need to collaboratively train international students, who will become our international partners when they return to their home countries and fight the diseases that are killing their relatives, friends and neighbors by the millions.

Improving global health is not a short-term project. Long term efforts are required to develop definitive solutions such as much-needed new vaccines, drugs and diagnostics. They are within our reach, but still years away. Hence it is vital to offer educational opportunities and partnerships that open the doors of global health to high school and college students and provide professional training.

Public-private partnerships are another critical element for success. We need to ensure that the business community has opportunities for collaboration and investment. We need to apply the same creativity and “outside the box” thinking that have been characteristic of so many signature Northwest accomplishments and will help us meet this goal.

The Leadership Conference, with people from a variety of sectors coming together to learn about global health, provides an excellent starting point for us to work in concert and provide answers to the question of what is needed to move to the next level. I believe that, working together, Washington State can enhance and expand our current position as a world-class center of excellence for global health research.

Ken Stuart is the founder of Seattle Biomedical Research Institute. His research is focused on unicellular parasites that are estimated to kill around a million people each year. Follow @

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  • http://BiotechStockResearch.com David Miller

    Most of the majors have determined they will buy their R&D instead of expand to new cities to create more. There are some exceptions, of course, but so few that the inter-city competition for them will be fierce.

    A much better approach, and one I’ve been advocating for years, is to duplicate the Irish model of focusing on drug manufacturing to build the core “base” of stable biotech/healthcare infrastructure in the area. The range of jobs in drug manufacturing covers a much broader educational background, making government investment in the area more palatable.

    As medicine becomes more personalized, there will be a boom in manufacturing to handle all the different kinds of medications. While the number of cells and pills produced may not increase much, the number of manufacturing lines and bioreactors necessary to produce an exponentially larger array of these drugs will. I believe the resulting smaller, more nimble, and more tech-heavy manufacturing lines are a perfect fit for our area’s geography and base of technical experts.

    It also happens to be a far more stable business than drug development, which will almost always see dislocations due to acquisition in the case of success, or layoffs in the case of failures.