Merck Bails on Seattle, Gates Foundation Backs Far-Out Ideas, Zymo Drug Shows Promise & More Seattle-Area Life Sciences News

Xconomy Seattle — 

Seattle biotech took an uppercut on the chin this week, as Merck bailed out on the region seven years after it established the first Big Pharma beachhead in the Northwest. Since pharma companies like this play critical roles in providing stability to biotech scene, there’s no other way to slice this than to call it a downer of a week.

—All that said, Vulcan’s Ada Healey told me she knows of some prospective tenants who might be able to fill the snazzy building in South Lake Union that will be vacated because of Merck’s decision to shut down Rosetta Inpharmatics. She also notes that not everybody in pharmaland is hunkering down. Danish drugmaker Novo Nordisk said this summer it’s going to hire 80 people in Seattle over the next two years.

—One positive sign came this week from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Seattle-based nonprofit said it is backing 104 far-out ideas from researchers around the world that might shake up conventional wisdom in treating HIV, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases. Five of these grant winners were based in Seattle.

—Seattle-based ZymoGenetics (NASDAQ: ZGEN) reported an early glimpse of effectiveness from a study of 18 patients on its IL-21 drug for kidney cancer, in combination with Bayer and Onyx Pharmaceuticals’ sorafenib (Nexavar.) Final results on whether this study slowed the spread of disease will be available by mid-2009.

—Accium Biosciences told me a fascinating tale about how it has found a way to apply a tool of archaeology to the world of drug development. The Seattle-based startup has grown to 14 employees over the past two years, and is now running its 15-ton particle accelerator around the clock to keep up with demand from pharmaceutical companies that want to measure precisely how well their drugs are being absorbed into tissues.

—I profiled WRF Capital, the nonprofit entity that is being transformed into a tech and life sciences venture capital fund to support research and innovation at the University of Washington and other state institutions.