Invest Northwest Notebook: Five of Seattle’s Next-Generation Life Sciences Innovators Seek to Adapt

3/19/09Follow @xconomy

No single company captured the lion’s share of buzz at this year’s Invest Northwest conference with a mega-partnership or a lucrative round of venture capital. But there were signs that the Northwest’s life sciences companies have adapted to life in a recession, and are continuing to get out of bed each day with plans to develop valuable new drugs, devices, diagnostics, and vaccines for the healthcare system.

Still, it is a bit amazing how event organizers managed to break an attendance record this year with 740 people registered, in the midst of this downturn. That didn’t happen this year at bigger investor events like the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco. What’s more remarkable is this happened even though Seattle’s biotech stars of the past—Immunex, Icos, Corixa, Rosetta Inpharmatics, Corus Pharma—have all gotten acquired and absorbed into larger companies.

The clearest explanation I heard of what’s happening here was from Chris Rivera, the new president of the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association. “Our community is coming together in a time of need,” he said in his opening remarks.

So who are some of the people in the life sciences community who are moving ahead and doing the innovative entrepreneurial life sciences work now? Here are some updates on five intriguing local companies I was able to gather at the conference:

Alder Biopharmaceuticals, the Bothell, WA-based developer of “fast-follower” antibody drugs, drew an overflow crowd to hear its strategy. Alder has engineered its lead drug, called ALD518, to block the same IL-6 molecules that are hit by Roche’s Actemra for rheumatoid arthritis, but with a number of advantages over that drug, as CEO Randy Schatzman explained to me back in September. The Alder drug can last longer in the bloodstream, so it can be injected less frequently, possibly just three or four times a year instead of once a month, he said. Alder can also give its treatment in one-tenth the dose because it’s more potent, meaning that it’s cheaper to manufacture. And, since Alder’s drugs are made in fast-dividing yeast cells instead of the traditional mammalian cells, its production process is about four times faster at producing drugs, making much better use of all that expensive fermentation equipment, Schatzman said.

Based on this early progress in getting this drug into an ongoing Phase II clinical trial, Alder now expects to form a partnership later this year to co-develop the product with a major drugmaker, Schatzman said yesterday at the conference.

—Seattle-based Immune Design pulled in an $18 million Series A round of venture capital last June—the second-biggest initial financing of a local biotech last year (behind Seattle-based PhaseRx). As Immune Design CEO Steve Reed explained yesterday, the company has used that cash to start its first clinical trial, which combines its proprietary immune-boosting compound, called an adjuvant, to a flu vaccine made by Sanofi-Aventis. This adjuvant, according to Reed, is supposed to boost the effectiveness of flu vaccines for people over age 65, a fast-growing population who don’t get great protection from existing vaccines, Reed said. The compound … Next Page »

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