State Tobacco Moneyman, John DesRosier, Aims to Push Biotech Ideas Beyond “Valley of Death”

12/18/08Follow @xconomy

A new batch of research grants, worth $19 million, was announced earlier this week by the state Life Sciences Discovery Fund. It’s the quasi-public agency charged with running a 10-year, $350 million program to invest the state’s tobacco settlement money in biomedical research and development. This round, grants were given to develop new vaccines, improve mental health in rural areas, enhance treatment of sudden cardiac arrest, and invent a new way to deliver biotech drugs in cells.

I interviewed John DesRosier, the fund’s director of programs, to try to better interpret what the fund is trying to do. DesRosier (pronounced Duh-ROE-zher) is the point man on staff, with more than 30 years of experience in research and technology commercialization. He’s a University of Washington microbiologist, with experience at a startup, BioControl Systems of Bothell, WA, that introduced four diagnostic tests for detecting dangerous bacteria in food.

Here are the highlights of the interview:

Xconomy: Why did the board pick these four grant proposals?

John DesRosier: My goal has always been to get in front of our board a suite of proposals that are all very, very high quality. The dollar value of that suite is always going to be more than we have available to spend. Then we tell the board they can’t make a mistake. Then we ask them to work on constructing a portfolio of investments they want to make around the state.

X: What about a little on each of these four grants, in terms of why they made the cut?

JD: I guess I’m speaking for the board. There’s always a variety of 11 voices in that room. So what you’ll get from me is a big overview. But with John Roll (of Washington State University), he’s identified a substantial amount of substance addiction and mental health issues are in rural areas, and aren’t being well addressed. I’m reminded that 23 of the 38 counties in the state are rural, and seven of those are subcategorized as “frontier” which means that you have less than one person per square mile. There are mental illness and substance addiction problems out there that are not being well-addressed. The typical protocols for dealing with substance abuse and mental illness have been developed for urban populations.

X: Isn’t it the same treatment, if, say, you have heroin addiction, you take methadone, right? What’s different?

JD: Delivery. It is the same pharmacologically. But a lot of this depends on primary care physicians, who are the only physicians the people in rural areas see. And they’re not trained to do mental health. Part of it is going to be bringing tools and knowledge, and adapting urban protocols to rural.

X: What about the other grants?

JD: You know about Seattle and King County EMS, and how special we are in responding to heart attacks? We’re talking about the group that has made Seattle arguably the top place in the nation for cardiac resuscitation. They are working closely with two external defibrillator makers, one is Medtronic Physio-Control, and the other is Philips. They feel there is still a lot to be done to improve.

X: With a goal of improving the survival rate?

JD: Yes, and to spread it around the state. … Next Page »

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