The Greater Seattle Brain Science Cluster
[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.
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 PT] Blaze 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 of leading pharmaceutical companies, according to CEO Michael Hite.
[Added: 9 am 3/16/12] Institute for Systems Biology. The Seattle-based nonprofit center is all about connecting the dots between genes and proteins so as to better understand the biology of whole organisms, which can lead in lots of different directions. Huntington’s disease, and brain cancer (glioblastoma) are a couple of particular areas of interest at the ISB.
[Added: 7:54 pm 3/16/12] NeuroVista. This Seattle-based company is developing an implantable device that captures data on electrical activity in the brain, which can provide an early warning sign before an epileptic seizure. The company raised $21.5 million in venture capital in August 2010. Earlier this month, the company said it shared a $7.5 million grant with partners at the University of Pennsylvania, University of Minnesota, and the Mayo Clinic.
Omeros. The Seattle-based biotech company (NASDAQ: OMER) received $25 million in October 2010 from Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital and the Washington Life Science Discovery Fund for an ambitious effort to gain access to a wide range of molecular drug targets known as G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs). An estimated 30 to 40 percent of all existing prescription drugs today are made to hit the more accessible forms of these targets, including big brand name therapies for allergies, pain, and mental illness, including Merck’s loratadine (Claritin), Bristol-Myers Squibb’s aripiprazole (Abilify), and Purdue Pharma’s oxycodone (Oxycontin). Aside from its GPCR discovery program, Omeros has treatments for addiction, schizophrenia, and movement disorders in development.
PhysioSonics. The company, another UW spinoff, is developing ultrasound technology that can provide automated monitoring of blood flow in the brain. The technology could be used to help look for signs of complications in stroke patients, or the kind of pressure buildup that often causes trouble after a traumatic brain injury. Medtronic and local angel investor Kirby Cramer have invested in the company.
Proteotech. This Kirkland, WA-based company keeps a pretty low profile, and traces its origin all the way back to 1996. But back in December, it announced a collaboration with pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline to develop drug candidates for Parkinson’s, and other diseases related to misfolded proteins, such as Lewy Body Dementia and Multiple System Atrophy. Before GSK came along, much of this early work was supported by the Michael J. Fox Foundation.
Swedish Medical Center/NeuroNext. Swedish Neuroscience Institute raised its game when it recruited John Henson, a prominent neurologist from Massachusetts General Hospital, a few years ago. Henson made some news back in November when he secured a seven-year, $2.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to lead a consortium of 25 neuroscience centers around the country. This program, called NeuroNext, is charged with conducting clinical trials on a variety of brain disorders, in collaboration with academia, foundations, and industry. Henson plans to discuss the program in greater detail at an upcoming event on March 28 organized by the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association.
[Added: 3/19/12 3:40 pm PT] University of Washington. Much of the region’s neuroscience technology comes from research at the UW, and there are many groups to watch on campus. One of them is the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE). The center is supported through a five-year, $18.5 million grant. The mission there is to “connect a deep mathematical understanding of how biological systems acquire and process information with the design of effective devices that interact with and assist human beings,” says Rad Roberts, CSNE’s industry liaison officer. One of the early applications is the i-limb prosthetic hand that UW researchers have worked to develop with Touch Bionics.