Companies like Hay Biotechnology, Umoja Biopharma AND Sonoma Biotherapeutics are heeding the call from the Tacoma Mountains, making BioForest the Washington and Oregon region a fertile ground for biotech innovators. and if rumor One has to believe that there could be a big player coming in soon.
Seattle, in particular, is a stronghold for one of biopharma’s hottest spaces — cell and gene therapy.
“You have a huge focus on cell and gene therapies because you have the Hutch, which is actually where the first cell therapy was developed,” said Andy Scharenberg, MD, co-founder and CEO of Seattle-based Umoja. BioSpace. Scharenberg was referring to the renowned Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where he pioneered bone marrow transplants Dr. E. Donnall Thomas discovered the potential of the human immune system to eliminate cancer.
Along with Umoja, Sana and Affini-T Therapeutics, both based in Seattle, are continuing this work. Umoja’s approach aims to re-engineer the patient’s immune system in vivo to attack and destroy both hematological and solid organ-based tumors. Sana is a hybrid of cell and gene therapy with a coating technology that works to overcome the immune barriers of allogeneic cells. Affini-Tlaunched by researchers at the Hutch, is pioneering TCR T cell engineering therapy with synthetic biology and gene editing improvements to target oncogenic driver mutations.
Meanwhile, in December 2021, based in Seattle Tune Therapeutics announced its entry into the large epigenome editing space. This emerging field also consists of Omega Therapeutics and brand new Epic Bio.
While Seattle gets most of the attention, just to the south, Oregon is home to Sparrow Pharmaceuticals, NemaMetrix and Aronora, along with a host of scientific tool makers, including Araceli Biosciences and Grace Bio-Labs.
An elite pool of talent
BioForest-based companies are able to attract elite scientific talent from the Hutch as well as from the University of Washington where Affini-T scientific co-founder Phil Greenberg holds a teaching position. Oregon State University’s Center for Genome Research and Biocomputing offers another rich pool of talent.
With established companies like Seagen in the region, there is also an ecosystem to provide management talent, Scharenberg said, noting that “building a biotech requires good management.”
Those factors, along with a relative affordability advantage over the Biotech Bay principle and Genetown centers have made Seattle a great place to build new biotechs, he said. “You’re seeing that with an increasing amount of startup activity, and also with the continued capacity to raise them into at least the mid-cap range.”
Seagen, Scharenberg said, is “an example of a biotech that’s completely homegrown—just an absolutely fantastic success—and has brought a ton of expertise to how you grow and run a pharmaceutical company at every stage. People have moved away from this throughout the Seattle area.”
The BioForest is also just that, a forest, and one that attracts the current generation of biotech talent, Scharenberg said.
“There’s a growing interest in doing things outdoors, and Seattle is amazing for that. There’s probably nowhere else in the country where you can drive an hour or ski and feel like you’re practically in the wilderness.” He added that the COVID-19 pandemic may have added to this feeling.
These factors spoke clearly to Sonoma. The cell therapy company, which is focused on curing autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, recently announced plans to build a Operating facility 83,000 square meters in Seattle. The site will be primarily devoted to research, development and manufacturing of novel regulatory T-cell therapies (Market). Sonoma’s first target is rheumatoid arthritis, for which it is conducting IND-enabling studies.
Heidi Hagen, chief technical officer at Sonoma, said BioSpace the company expects to hire for more than 100 positions throughout the Seattle area.
“Seattle has an established legacy of providing many firsts in the field of cell therapy for oncology, and Sonoma Bio is leveraging this knowledge to deliver the next wave of innovation – Treg cell therapies for autoimmune and inflammatory diseases,” she said. Hagen added that Sonoma “considered proximity to transportation infrastructure, talent, technology and [its] current operations” when exploring prime locations for the center.
Hagen noted that the first active cell immunotherapy, Dendreon Pharmaceuticals’ Provenge, for prostate cancer, was developed and approved in the Seattle area. This achievement led to Juno Therapeuticswhich was formed by former Dendreon executives and then acquired by Celgene (now BMS) for $9 billion. Juno raised a $176 million Series A in 2014, one of the largest early-stage biotech funding rounds at the time.
The intersection of high technology and biotechnology
The high concentration of companies like Amazon and Microsoft in the region “offers an opportunity for the integration of digital technology and medical science,” Hagen noted. “It is at this intersection of high technology and biotechnology that new genetic innovations and simple means of medical diagnosis and product manufacturing can be achieved.”
Sana President and CEO Steve Harr said MD BioSpace The critical mass of talent, large companies, emerging companies, infrastructure, capital and high-quality cities in the BioForest region are converging to “make Seattle a leader in important emerging areas such as cell therapy, antibody-drug conjugates and complex production”.
Harr jumped into complex manufacturing in cell therapy, which he said “has emerged as a core and differentiating force in the region that is growing and looks sustainable.
“This talent, combined with a mix of large and emerging companies, has given the area the critical mass to be a viable life sciences hub,” Harr continued. Seattle’s strong foundation in cell and gene therapy and oncology is what drew Sana to the area, he said.
Historically, successful Seattle biotechs have been acquired in the small or mid-cap range, Scharenberg noted, adding that he predicts “we’ll see more and more successful biotechs turn into operating companies, a bit like Seagen .
“What we hope to continue to do is to see companies like [Seagen] start from scratch, grow to small to mid-cap stage, but also eventually be successful and stick around and grow into successful commercial biotechs that gradually move into the big biotech category,” he said.
Ultimately, “When you have an ecosystem that can be anchored by one or two companies that are bigger like this, and then a little thing in between and a really active startup situation, to me that’s a really healthy,” concluded Scharenberg.
According to Harr, BioForest is right on the brink.
“I’m optimistic that the Seattle area has reached a critical mass that provides the momentum for inevitable success,” he said. “That said, the winners attract and grow the talent base and will remain critical to the region’s success.”
Of course, with Merck’s potential acquisition of Seagen on the horizon – the deal is said to be stalled by a dispute over price – the region’s star could rise even higher. Only time will tell.
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