Latest life sciences news: COVID-19 nasal spray; disease reversal; Amazon’s healthcare priorities

Finalists for Health Innovation of the Year at this year’s GeekWire Awards.

This week we highlighted the finalists for Health Innovation of the Year at the GeekWire Awards.

The finalists showcase the strength of science and innovation in the Pacific Northwest. That innovative streak was also on display this week as regional institutions and companies raised new funds, released new studies, and forged new deals.

Cell therapy and infectious disease featured centrally, with corneal disease cell therapy startup Aurion Biotech landing $120 million, and the Access to Advanced Health Institute securing a $26 million donation to support vaccine research. Be Biopharma, a Boston area-based spinout of Seattle Children’s Research Institute, raised $130 million to support its work on B cell immune therapies.

Catch up on all the latest news below, including links to research presented this week at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Cancer Research. And don’t forget to vote for our finalists in the Health Innovation and other categories at the GeekWire Awards.

UW Medicine CEO Paul Ramsey (second from left) is set to retire this summer. He’s also a long-time rower and supporter of UW Husky crew team members, shown here. (UW Photo)
Bench to Bedside:
  • Could COVID-19 be treated with a simple nasal spray? A study involving researchers at the UW’s Institute for Protein Design showcases the approach in mice. South Korea’s SK Bioscience is leading clinical development, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The new data builds on an earlier study.
  • Seattle-based Chinook Therapeutics initiated a phase 1 clinical trial for its liver-targeting agent to treat conditions involving excess oxalate in the urine, which can lead to kidney stones.
  • Seagen’s drug Padcev was approved by the European Commission for treatment of certain patients with urothelial cancer. The drug is already available in the US and was developed with Astellas Pharma.
More studies:
  • Tumors rarely metastasize into skeletal muscle, but the reason has been unclear. A study by Fred Hutch researchers provides an answer: “unchecked oxidative stress.”
  • Altos Labs has emerged with a study reprogramming the skin cells of a 53 year-old woman to that of a 23 year-old in a test tube. Seattle biotech veterans Hans Bishop and Richard Klausner are founders of the California and UK based “disease reversal” company, which has raised $3 billion.
Funding and deals:
A human B cell. (NIH Picture)
  • Be Biophama, a Boston-area company spun out of Seattle Children’s Research Institute, raised $130 million. The startup engineers B cells to produce a variety of bioactive proteins.
  • GSK will buy Sierra Oncology for $1.9 billion in a deal that builds up the biopharma giant’s hematology portfolio. Silicon Valley-based Sierra has a second site in Vancouver, BC
  • Washington Research Foundation awarded UW scientist Brian Kraemer $250,000 to investigate small molecules to treat Alzheimer’s Disease, targeting the tau protein.
Tech Moves:
  • UW Medicine is losing its long-time CEO. After 25 years at the helm, Paul Ramsey will retire on July 31.

real estate:

  • Biotech-focused developer BioMed Realty paid $126.75 million for a 1.6-acre property in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, the Puget Sound Business Journal reported. San Diego-based BioMed has several other properties in the region, including Tableau’s headquarters building and the new Dexter Yard project.
Health Tech:
  • Amazon outlined its priorities for its healthcare team, in a letter from the team’s new head Neil Lindsay. The priorities are: primary care, pharmacy, partnerships, and technology.
  • Health benefits platform company Accolade inked a new partnership with Priority Health, the second largest health plan in Michigan. Accolade is based in Seattle and Philadelphia.

Stories and Podcasts:

UW Professor Albert Folch’s new book. (Greg Cooksey and Albert Folch Cover Image)
  • How are biomedical research and drug discovery changing with the advent of new AI-powered tools to predict protein folding? This feature story explores how scientists are using AlphaFold and RoseTTAfold, developed by the University of Washington’s Institute for Protein Design.
  • UW bioengineering professor Albert Folch talks about his new book on the microfluidics tech behind inkjet printers, 3D printers, COVID-19 tests and more, in this interview.
  • Village Reach’s program to deliver vaccines via drones in remote areas of sub-Saharan Africa is featured in NatureMedicinealong with similar drone-delivery efforts.
  • The US Food and Drug Administration has released a draft framework for enrolling more diverse participants in clinical trials.
  • A new podcast features an interview with Christopher Murray, head of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, speaking about antibiotic resistant infections, which kill more than 1 million people annually.
Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Cancer Research:
Fred Hutch researcher Kristin Anderson. (Fred Hutch Photo)

Dozens of presentations from Seattle-area researchers were featured at the annual AACR meeting this week.

Kristin Anderson, a Fred Hutch researcher in the lab of incoming AACR president Phil Greenberg, presented preclinical data on a four-pronged immunotherapy approach to treat ovarian cancer, featured in STAT News. You can find other Fred Hutch abstracts here, and abstracts from Seattle Children’s here.

Seattle-area companies presenting included: Seagen, Kineta, Sana Biotechnology, Lyell Immunopharma, and NanoString Technologies.

More drama with Athira Pharma:

The graduate advisor of former Athira Pharma CEO Leen Kawas penned a letter on LinkedIn supporting his former student at Washington State University. Joseph Harding, the company’s co-founder and retired WSU Professor, said Kawas’ resignation from Athira last fall “casts doubt on the company’s future.”

Kawas left Athira after a company-initiated investigation concluded that she altered data-containing images in papers from her graduate research, which led to the company’s founding in 2011. Harding said he learned in 2015 that Kawas had “embellished” the data, but that it was “completely immaterial” to the research conclusions, and that he has emails from the journal rebuffing attempts to publish redone data.

Athira, which went public last year, expects findings soon from a phase 2 trial for Alzheimer’s disease.

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