UW Stem Cell Startup is Born, Global Health’s “Davos” Arrives, MDRNA Unloads Debt, & More Seattle-Area Life Sciences News

6/18/09Follow @xconomy

Center stage in Seattle life sciences moved to the waterfront this week, as 250 global movers and shakers in science, global health, and the pharmaceutical business gathered for the Pacific Health Summit.

—The Pacific Health Summit, an invitation-only event of global health stars, in its fifth year, focused this year on multidrug resistant tuberculosis, as I wrote in this preview story. Big names from global health came to brainstorm, including Margaret Chan of the World Health Organization, Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health, and Chris Viehbacher, the CEO of Sanofi-Aventis, the world’s largest vaccine maker. Seattle’s Infectious Disease Research Institute is one of the players in this field, too, through work supported by Eli Lilly.

—Every good conference like the Pacific Health Summit needs power players competing for media attention. This year, we had two pieces of international news. Johnson & Johnson announced a deal to co-develop a new drug with the nonprofit TB Alliance; the deal could lead to the first new drug against tuberculosis in more than 40 years. Sanofi-Aventis also broke some news by announcing it will donate 100 million doses of flu vaccine to the WHO, to help poor countries cope with the swine flu pandemic.

—I profiled Beat Biotherapeutics, a Bellevue, WA-based company that envisions a way of generating stem cells that could perform the function of a cardiac pacemaker, or maybe someday even regenerate heart muscle that’s been damaged by heart attack. This company is built on years of research by UW stem cell scientists Chuck Murry and Michael Laflamme, and is married to bioengineering techniques from Buddy Ratner’s lab at the UW.

—Mukilteo, WA-based CombiMatrix (NASDAQ: CBMX) never captured much of the market for sophisticated gene chips used in modern biotech labs, which is now dominated by Santa Clara, CA-based Affymetrix and San Diego-based Illumina. But now CombiMatrix hopes to carve out an emerging niche by marketing its DNA microarray instruments as a diagnostics service to physicians, who are looking for accurate ways to diagnose the aggressiveness of an individual patient’s form of cancer, and to use genetic screening to catch malignancies earlier.

MDRNA (NASDAQ: MRNA), the Bothell, WA-based developer of RNA interference drugs, has been working hard to clean up its balance sheet the last few months. It faced a cash crisis earlier in the year, and then raised $7.25 million from Novartis, another $10.5 million from investors, and used some of the proceeds this week to pay off its $5.5 million debt to GE Capital.

—Seattle’s Infectious Disease Research Institute said it is offering up its immune-stimulating compounds known as adjuvants to the world’s major vaccine makers. With the right partnerships in place, these adjuvants have potential to greatly amplify the world’s supply of flu vaccine, says IDRI founder Steve Reed. This may come in especially handy if the swine flu pandemic takes a severe turn for the worse.

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