Top 10 Seattle Biotech Stories in 2016

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There was no shortage of big stories this year in the larger biopharma world. Headlines were dominated by EpiPen pricing, the Theranos meltdown, Zika fears, Alzheimer’s disappointment, Sarepta drama and Cancer Moonshots. Not to mention the continual buzz around immunotherapy and startups or financing in the coastal mega clusters (San Francisco, San Diego and Cambridge).

But what about closer to home? There’s plenty going on in the Northwest too, and as the year comes to a close it’s always fun to look back. So, here’s my personal top 10 list for the biggest Seattle biotech stories in 2016:

  1. Juno and the CAR-T race. Although they downplay the significance of the checkered flag, Seattle-based Juno is in a competitive race to market with a CAR-T therapy for cancer. Their lead program is a CD19-targeting CAR-T for ALL (JCAR015) and after a surprisingly brief clinical hold this summer due to 3 deaths, the phase 2 “ROCKET” trial was revised and quickly restarted. But then, 2 more deaths due to cerebral edema were disclosed in November and the program is on hold once again. It’s unclear if cytokine response syndrome contributed to the deaths, but this is a known side effect of the new immunotherapies. The indefinite hold has helped Kite Pharma and Bluebird Bio and their competing CAR-T programs. Much of the new data was highlighted recently at ASH and for anybody wanting to keep track of it all, here’s a nice table summarizing the status of all the trials in this space. 
  2. More local players jump into immuno-oncology. Emergent Biosystems spun-off Aptevo Therapeutics to develop bispecific antibody technology (originally developed at Trubion) for immuno-oncology. The Hutch announced the creation of a new dedicated immuno-oncology clinic and OncoResponse and Adaptive both continued to build momentum into this therapeutic space.
  3. New companies were formed. Besides Aptevo, we learned about Silverback, a new venture from former Trubion co-founder Peter Thompson. They’ve raised $10 million but are still in stealth mode so we don’t know much about their platform. The Hutch also spun out a new company (Nohla) to develop universal donor cells for immunotherapy (won’t need to manipulate the patient’s own cells). Whoever figures this one out will have something special but many are skeptical it can work and there is competition, including Cellectis in France.
  4. Deals were made. NanoString inked a $24M deal to provide Merck with access to it’s immune-tumor profiling technology to better predict responders to checkpoint inhibition. Juno themselves saw the value of profiling technology and purchased AbVitro and their immune receptor sequencing technology for $125M. With the anti-CGRP race tight for chronic migraine treatment,  Alder Biopharmaceuticals licensed their IL-6 inhibitor to Vancouver BC-based Vitaeris.
  5. Money was raised. Financing is what adds runway length and fuels local biotech growth. WSU spin-out M3 Biotechnology brought in $10M to help fund a phase 1 study for their drug for neurodegenerative disease. Results with the angiotensin-derived peptide that acts as an HGF mimetic have been promising in mice and there's considerable hope the science will translate into great clinical benefit. Alpine Immune Sciences, founded in part by some of my former Amgen colleagues, raised $48M to continue engineering new immune-modulating scaffolds. The vaccine company Immune Design raised $30M, Immusoft recently raised $2.7M and finally, even though they are not technically Seattle-based, Vancouver BC-based Zymeworks announced an additional $61M in funding to advance their own bispecific antibodies in the clinic.
  6. Seattle Genetics had a good year in the clinic. One of Seattle's last remaining homegrown fully integrated biotechs continued to advance their pipeline. They announced positive Ph3 results in patients with cutaneous T cell lymphoma treated with Adcetris, the CD30 antibody drug conjugate (ADC) approved five years ago. SeaGen also just recently announced positive results for another ADC against LIV-1 (SGN-LIV1) in breast cancer solid tumors. Hopefully the good news will continue.
  7. For every two steps forward… Of course there were some step backwards for the local scene as well. For example, CTI Biopharma had yet another late stage trial failure, this time a Ph3 myelofibrosis study. They seem to be the Energizer Bunny of local biotech, so we’ll see if they keep going and going. More Seattle biotech jobs were lost when BMS announced they were eliminating or moving more R&D jobs out of the city, a legacy of the Zymogenetics acquisition. It’s never a good thing to see jobs lost.
  8. Seattle played host to great science. Seattle hosted this year’s AAI Immunology meeting and of course immuno-oncology featured prominently. I wrote about some of the highlights here. Another great meeting was the Immune Profiling conference sponsored by Adaptive. It was one of the better science meetings I’ve attended and it really highlighted the power of high-throughput sequence-based profiling platforms to tackle well crafted scientific questions. I’m hoping it will be back again next year. 
  9. Luke Timmerman released his new biography of Lee Hood’s life.  And the reviews have been good. The book provides a behind-the scenes story of the iconic biotech figure who still maintains a strong presence here in the northwest.
  10. Great local science. #10 on my list is dedicated to all of the great discovery science that's happening every day in Seattle (and elsewhere in the NW) at places like The Hutch, UW, ISB, The Allen Institutes for brain and cell research, WSU and many more. It doesn’t always make the headlines, but knowing it’s out there gives me confidence the future is bright for local biotech and even more deals and startups are on the way. 

Thanks for reading and happy new year!