The Greater Seattle Brain Science Cluster

3/16/12Follow @xconomy

[Update: 3/29/12 2:10 pm PT] Seattle has a lot of biotech talent, but not every major field of research is strong here, and I’d say it’s mostly an oncology, immunology, and infectious disease (global health) kind of town. Never in my time covering the local scene has it occurred to me think of Seattle a cluster of neuroscience R&D.

I still wouldn’t say Seattle is becoming a neuroscience town, but there are some interesting things percolating, which Lance Stewart recently brought to my attention. Stewart is the founder and former CEO of Bainbridge Island, WA-based Emerald Biostructures, a contract research shop that specializes in the 3-D molecular structures that are the targets of new drugs.

Stewart had worked on a few neurology projects during his years at Emerald, but was compelled to dig deeper into the region’s neuroscience assets last August, when his 18-year-old son Jackson was critically injured in a car accident that put him in a coma for 21 days. Stewart’s son was treated by the world-class brain trauma team at Harborview Medical Center, and he has now recovered enough to enroll in undergraduate courses this spring at the University of Washington.

Lance Stewart

Motivated partly by family experience, scientific curiosity, and the need for new treatments, one thing led thing to another for Stewart. He ended up taking a new job in Seattle as senior director of alliances for the Allen Institute for Brain Science, where his role is to help connect the open-science institute to people in Big Pharma and biotech. The hope is that some the Allen Institute’s brain maps could be useful in developing drugs for neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Huntington’s, and more. Given the well-publicized Big Pharma pullback from neurology R&D, and limited funding from the National Institutes for Health, I was interested to hear Stewart’s take on what pieces of the puzzle the Northwest has to offer.

“These are big unmet needs, and the pharma industry doesn’t have many answers for them,” Stewart says. “It’s a great opportunity, it’s not exactly clear how we’ll get there.”

So below, I’ve attempted to put together a basic list of innovative projects here, based on some of my own past reporting, and some tips from Stewart. If you know of other companies or research teams doing innovative neuroscience work that’s relevant to drug or device development, please leave a comment at the bottom of the story.

Alder Biopharmaceuticals. This Bothell, WA-based biotech company is an antibody drug developer, not really a neuroscience company per se, but one of its interesting R&D projects is developing an antibody as a treatment for migraine headaches.

Allen Institute for Brain Science. Billionaire Paul Allen committed $100 million to this nonprofit, open-source effort back in 2003, and it’s begun to gain momentum lately. The institute has provided unique, functional gene expression maps of the mouse brain, the human brain, and spinal cords, which scientists use every day in their research. The institute has brought in some top neuroscientists in the past year, including Christoph Koch from Caltech, R. Clay Reid from Harvard Medical School, and Ricardo Dolmetsch from Stanford University.

[Added: 3/29/12 2:10 pm] AMRI. The contract drug discovery shop, which has an office in Bothell, WA, has a number of compounds it is developing on its own. The company licensed a depression program to Bristol-Myers Squibb in 2005, and Bristol has now taken one compound from that program into Phase II clinical trials, says Nick Moore, AMRI’s director of development and pharmacology. The company also has programs ongoing for the treatment of schizophrenia and learning/memory disorders, which it hopes to move into clinical trials with the help of partners, Moore says.

[Added: 3/19/12 3:40 pm PT] Aqueduct Neuroscience. This UW spinoff is working to treat hydrocephaly, a condition in which excess fluid builds up and puts pressure on the brain. Sam Browd, a neurosurgeon at Seattle Children’s Hospital, and UW bioengineering professor Barry Lutz collaborated to get this project going, and noted medical device entrepreneur Tom Clement has joined the fledgling company as CEO.

[Added: 9:30 am PTBlaze Bioscience. This spinoff company from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is seeking to develop a “tumor paint” technology to improve treatment of brain cancer. The hope is that Blaze will make it easier for surgeons to tell the difference between tumor tissue, and healthy brain tissue during surgery, so they can hopefully get rid of all the tumor before sewing the patient back up.

Emerald Biostructures. Emerald does projects for a variety of pharma and biotech customers, and generally doesn’t disclose what it is working on. But the structural biologists there have worked in the past on spinal muscular atrophy, and the company has received support from the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research and the CHDI Foundation, which supports development of treatments for Huntington’s disease.

[Added: 9:30 am 3/16/12] Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center/Seattle Children’s Hospital. Jim Olson, a pediatric oncologist at the Hutch and Seattle Children’s and founder of Blaze Bioscience, has received support for his research into brain tumors from Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure, a venture philanthropy organization co-founded by AOL pioneer Steve Case.

Harborview Medical Center/University of Washington. Harborview, Stewart says, is “perhaps the top brain trauma center in the entire country, perhaps the world,” and he credits the team there with saving his son’s life. Stewart also singled out work by Kathleen Bell at UW, where she is a leader in the study of traumatic brain injury, especially as it relates to sports.

Impel Neuropharma. This University of Washington spinoff company is working to develop a device that seeks to deliver drugs deeply into the nasal cavity, as a clever way around the blood-brain barrier that prevents many oral pills from being effectively delivered into the brain. The company has raised more than $2.1 million from a combination of angel investors, the U.S. Department of Defense, Washington’s Life Sciences Discovery Fund, and a couple … Next Page »

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  • R. Jones

    You lost me at, “Seattle has a lot of biotech talent”. These are the people busy reinventing themselves. You don’t fix things that aren’t broken.

  • http://www.washbio.org Chris Rivera

    Great article Luke. You are correct, neuroscience R&D, as well as commercialization are emerging areas of expertise in our state. The WBBA’s Commercialization team is also seeing more IP in this space. The NeuroNext event on the 28th is a great place for everyone to realize the vast potential and critical mass that is in Washington.
    Chris

  • http://seattlechildrens.org/research/ Mary Guiden

    Nice article and overview, Luke. Great to see Dr. Jim Olson and Blaze Bioscience details, too.

    One additional brain science initiative to add is the Center for Integrative Brain Research at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. Led by Dr. Nino Ramirez, the Center brings together scientists and clinicians at the genetic, molecular, cellular, network and behavioral levels to better understand a wide spectrum of neuronal functions and brain-related diseases.

    Dr. Ramirez and members of his team are studying autism, sleep apnea (it’s not just for adults), epilepsy, sudden infant death syndrome, ADHD and other conditions and diseases. The center’s work on epilepsy, as one example, may have far-reaching effects for traumatic brain injury victims. Estimates show that between 48,000 and 169,000 soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are expected to develop post-traumatic epilepsy.

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  • http://www.feareygroup.com Aaron Blank

    Luke, so true! The neuroscience cluster is growing in Seattle. I’ve had the opportunity to come across some of these projects in my public relations work in the region. Here are a few to consider adding to the mix.

    The Swedish Neuroscience Institute, led by Drs. Marc Mayberg and David Newell, has a suite of research projects worth mentioning – from Dr. Newell’s work with EKOS in Bothell to review the Safety of Lysis with Ultrasound in the Treatment of Intracerebral and Intraventricular Hemorrhage to Dr. James Bowen’s 24 clinical research trials to advance Multiple Sclerosis treatments. Dr. Bowen just opened a comprehensive MS Center up on Cherry Hill. One of his studies specifically looks at the effect of pregnancy on patients living with MS. For an unknown reason, pregnant mothers experience almost no symptoms during the course of their pregnancy, but they experience a spike in symptoms almost immediately after the child is delivered. Why? He is looking into it.

    Dr. Greg Foltz at the Ivy Brain Tumor Center is collaborating with the Institute for Systems Biology to study the genetic makeup of brain tumors. Tumors from the Center are sent to the lab to become part of a brain tumor bank and a genomic database that is helping cancer researchers around the country. Dr. Foltz is also working with Northwest Biotherapeutics in Bothell to investigate a personalized vaccine for treating brain cancer.

    Keep the list going…. there are many others left uncovered.

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  • Diana Pozzi

    Luke: The Hydrocephalus Support Group, Inc. will be taking part in the 2014 UW Brain Awareness Open House in March. Part of our mission is doing outreach & making ourselves available to families, friends, caregivers and those (of all ages) living with all hydrocephalus. We also hold a monthly meeting at Swedish Hospital, in the Casey Room from 12:45 pm to 3:00 pm on the third Saturday of each month. Drop ins are welcome.