Gov. Gregoire “Committed” to Biotech Fund While Juggling DC Health Reform, Economy

9/22/09Follow @xconomy

Gov. Chris Gregoire has been in the thick of the health care reform talks in the other Washington. To hear her tell the story, she has been talking with President Obama’s top health policy aide, Nancy Ann DeParle, U.S. Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and one of the leading Senators on health reform, Senator Max Baucus of Montana.

Gregoire has been so busy with the DC power elite, and dealing with a recent economic report that said the state’s economy has hit “rock bottom,” that I heard some scuttle she might try to phone it in at her own annual Governor’s Life Sciences Summit in Seattle this morning.

But there she was at McCaw Hall in Seattle at 8 am, letting a crowd of at least 100 people brought to together by the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association know she’s still a believer in their work to build up the state’s cluster of companies that develop new drugs, medical devices, and diagnostics.

“We ought to remain committed to the Life Sciences Discovery Fund and what it can do for the public,” Gregoire said.

This spring, Gregoire and the legislature gave skeptics some reason to doubt the state’s commitment, when the fund was dealt a 41 percent cut over the current two-year budget cycle. The program, which pays for research projects in the state that have commercial potential, was originally projected to be a 10-year, $350 million program that uses money from the state’s tobacco settlement. But the Life Sciences Discovery Fund will now get $19.5 million per year over the next two years because of the state’s budget cuts, said executive director Lee Huntsman.

Interestingly, Gregoire’s justification for the program appears to have shifted. For years, this program was sold as an engine of job creation and prosperity for Washington state—which is finding it increasingly tough to pass the straight-face test when the unemployment rate has topped 9 percent, and even some of the strongest life sciences companies have been slashing payrolls. This morning, Gregoire shifted her message to talk more about the payoff for human health.

She told one anecdote about a police officer, Ray Blackwell. He suffered a brain hemorrhage that’s often fatal, but he survived after being treated by David Newell, the executive director of the Swedish Neuroscience Institute in Seattle. Newell was one of the early winners of state grant support—$169,532—to treat intracranial hemorrhages with an experimental procedures that uses a catheter loaded with enhanced ultrasound, combined with a common clot-busting drug, to gently dissolve the clot over a 24-hour period without causing complications.

The story has two local angles because not only is Newell a local doc getting state support for an innovative idea, but the ultrasound is from a local venture-backed ultrasound company, Bothell, WA-based Ekos.

The Governor could have used a little more briefing on the technology—she flubbed the technical term “thrombolysis” which essentially means clot-busting. “You can tell I’m a lawyer, not a doctor,” she joked.

Gregoire has obviously left the details in the hands of Huntsman, the former bioengineering professor at the University of Washington and interim UW president, and Rogers Weed, Washington’s new Secretary of Commerce. Gregoire said she meets with Weed almost daily to talk about how to spur the local high tech and life sciences economy.

Huntsman provided a brief progress report on what the state taxpayers are getting for their money. He didn’t say much that was really new beyond what we reported a year ago about the strategy of the life sciences fund, but he did add an observation. Just by having the state money available, it has gotten researchers excited to think big, and come up with new ideas that may get funded by the state for a while, and then get funded by the feds or investors for years to come.

A wide variety of projects from scientists across the state have gotten funding for projects that include new vaccines, treatment of cardiac arrest, mental health research, and the development of a new form of wheat that can people can eat if they have Celiac disease, which makes them intolerant to the usual grain.

“I can say the state of Washington is teeming with good ideas, outstanding ideas,” Huntsman said. “This is a tool that can launch and leverage them so other people will support them. This is advancing the ecosystem.”

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  • http://www.spreadingscience.com/ Richard Gayle

    I was at the summit and noticed the shift in rhetoric also. It may be for the best. Creating jobs is sometimes a pretty nebulous metric, one that does not really foretell the health and effectiveness of this particular industry.

    The things that demonstrate long term health in biotech are useful medical products in the clinic. Otherwise we are just having government and venture capital fund jobs, not drug development.

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