BY CAROL TICE
If you are at high risk of having a heart attack, stroke or cardiac death now or in the next year, wouldn’t you want to know? Thanks to one Seattle-area biotech startup, you can now find out with a simple blood test.
The result of five years of AI-enabled research and development, two tests developed by Kirkland, Washington-based Prevencio provide the first non-invasive heart-attack, stroke, and cardiac death risk diagnostic tools. The tests are compared with the company’s vast database of risk levels involving multiple proteins and fatty acids in complex combinations. This approach has proven substantially more accurate than the old-school treadmill stress test.
“We have no real competitors in the heart blood space,” says Prevencio president and CEO Rhonda Rhyne.
The blood tests, which Medicare began reimbursing in January, enable doctors to more easily diagnose heart troubles and quickly offer preventive treatments. With one American adult dying of a heart attack, stroke, or cardiovascular death every 36 seconds, the life-saving potential is huge, Rhyne notes.
Advanced cardiac-health testing is only one example of the Seattle-area biotech sector’s lifesaving innovations. The state is home to over 1,500 life-sciences companies, the vast majority of them Seattle-based, according to regional industry association Life Science Washington. The region’s biotech sector is growing fast, too – a 2023 study from Lightcast found Seattle-area biotech employment grew 24 percent over the past 5 years. Seattle has become a top choice for graduates looking to start science careers where they can make a difference, in a city with outstanding outdoor recreation opportunities for their off-hours.
When Prevencio sought a lab certified to create commercial-grade tests it didn’t have to go far, Rhynes notes, partnering with Seattle’s Atlas Genomics in 2021. In another local collaboration, Prevencio partnered with Seattle Children’s Hospital researchers to analyze blood test data from Children’s pediatric patients and developed the first-ever test for Kawasaki disease in children. An international multi-center study is currently validating the new test’s efficacy, Rhyne says.
Another startup that’s benefited from regional collaboration is Adaptive Biotechnologies, which seeks to answer one of cancer patients’ biggest questions: Is my cancer gone now?
Based in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, Adaptive was founded on trailblazing immune repertoire sequencing research done by co-founder Harlan Robins while he was a professor at nationally renowned Seattle institution Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. He co-founded Adaptive in 2009 with brother Chad Robins to leverage this new immunosequencing platform to develop both diagnostic tools and therapeutics . It’s rare for a small startup to pursue both avenues at once, Robins notes.
In 2018, the FDA approved Adaptive’s first next generation sequencing based test of minimal residual disease (MRD), available for patients with lymphoid malignancies. Simply, the test measures whether any cancer cells remain in patients after treatment, offering possible peace of mind or early warning that more therapies are needed.
Adaptive collaborated with Microsoft to unlock the full potential of their massive database of immune receptors through machine learning. Together, the companies developed the TCR Antigen map to identify disease signature data that can be used to diagnose and treat diseases, Robins adds.
“The next frontier for us on the drug-discovery front is tackling autoimmune disorders,” Robins says. “We’re pretty excited, because we’ve made significant progress in identifying and validating our first novel target for multiple sclerosis.”
A few miles north in Bothell, medical science fiction has become reality at Bristol Myers Squibb’s advanced cell therapy manufacturing facility, which is supercharging individual patients’ T-cells to turn them into targeted cancer-killers. The biopharma giant came to Seattle through its acquisition of local startup Juno Therapeutic’s parent company Celgene in 2019.
Bristol Myers Squibb now has a substantial Seattle-area footprint with over 1,500 employees in the region. Its Seattle-based research and development teams discover, design and develop the cell therapies that are then manufactured in Bothell and at other facilities across its global cell therapy manufacturing network for patients. The company invested $149 million in local business and vendor relationships last year alone. Its research efforts have included supporting over 110 clinical trials in multiple therapeutic areas across the state.
“We’re building where there are strong ecosystems to drive innovative science,” says Teri Foy, Bristol Myers Squibb’s senior vice president of research and head of the Cancer Immunology and Cell Therapy Thematic Research Center.
Another community focus for Bristol Myers Squibb is mentoring new grads interested in science careers through the state’s Washington State Opportunity Scholarship program for underserved STEM students. Foy says Bristol Myers Squibb has sponsored over 60 students with over $530,000 in total scholarship, matching them with mentor scientists to help them see how to move from STEM learning into available biotech careers.
The Bothell neighborhood chosen for the Bristol Myers Squibb manufacturing plant is a blossoming biotech hub, anchored by the recently opened Center for Biotechnology Innovation & Training at UW Bothell. At Bristol Myers Squibb’s unassuming brick-and-glass manufacturing facility, patient samples are then carefully washed to separate out the T-cells, which are then slowly frozen. Next, an antigen receptor is introduced into the T-cells to ramp up their ability to fight a specific cancer. After the cells multiply, they are harvested and prepared and sent to the treatment center for delivery to the patient.
It’s incredibly laborious work to create these personalized treatments from each individual patient’s cells. The next step is to find ways to turn healthy donors’ T-cells into customized cancer fighters without triggering rejection. That would allow cancer-fighting T-cells to be mass-produced and stored, allowing more patients to be treated, says Foy.
What’s next for the company? Bristol Myers Squibb is also working towards testing neurological and autoimmune disease treatment with enhanced T-cells for people living with conditions like multiple sclerosis and lupus. Foy notes that the company recently received proof of concept from an academic study that engineered T-cell treatments could offer hope for systemic lupus erythematosus patients.
“The hope is that cell therapy can reset the immune system, offering the potential for a functional cure in autoimmunity,” she says.
There’s a critical convergence of expertise in Seattle’s biotech ecosystem that will lead to more breakthroughs in future, Adaptive’s Robins says. Between local expertise in related fields and the region’s outstanding outdoor recreation opportunities to pursue after work, he considers the Seattle area the best place in the country to build a biotech career.
“We have thought leadership here in AI, in tech, in computational biology,” he notes. “Tons of discoveries and new ways to treat human conditions are going to come from the biotech revolution, and a lot of it will be incubated in the Seattle area.
“And to boot, within 20 minutes, you could be on an awesome hiking trail.”