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State Tobacco Cash Funneled Into Vaccines, Biotech Drug Delivery, Cardiac Arrest, and Mental Health Research

Xconomy Seattle — 

(Update: This story has added information on the six finalists that fell short in their bid for state grants.)

Washington’s Life Sciences Discovery Fund just made a bunch of biomedical researchers either very happy, or highly disappointed. The 10-year, $350 million initiative, which takes money from the state tobacco settlement, chose to pump almost $19 million into four grant proposals that explore development of new vaccines, improved ways to treat cardiac arrest, rural mental health, and how to better deliver biotech drugs into cells.

This was a big round of grants for the fund. Before today, the quasi-state agency had divvied out 17 grants to researchers worth a combined $32 million. I got an update on the strategy of the program, and it’s progress thus far, in September during an interview with executive director Lee Huntsman. A total of 29 grant applications were sent in, and 10 of them were closely scrutinized through interviews by reviewers with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the board’s trustees. “All of them were of high scientific and technical merit,” said Lura Powell, chair of the board of trustees.

The aim of these grants, Powell said on today’s conference call, is to advance health care for Washington residents, strengthen the local economy, and promote the region’s competitiveness as a global biotech hub.

With that in mind, here’s a rundown of the newest grant recipients announced today. All of them won by a unanimous votes.

Lawrence Corey, a researcher at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and a leader in the global movement for an HIV vaccine, won a $4.7 million grant as the lead investigator of the Washington Vaccine Alliance that aims to develop new vaccines for wider use. The collaboration includes researchers at Battelle’s Northwest Division, the Infectious Disease Research Institute in Seattle, the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, the University of Washington, Washington State University, and PATH, the Seattle-based nonprofit that aims to improve global health.

Thomas Rea of Seattle/King County’s Department of Public Health won a $2.7 million grant to help improve technologies for treating cardiac arrest. The agency is collaborating on this work with the University of Washington, Philips Healthcare, and Physio-Control. The companies are known for developing external defibrillators, which can be used to shock a faltering heart back into a normal rhythm.

John Roll, the director of the Washington Institute for Mental Illness Research and Training at Washington State University won another grant for $4 million to study ways to improve rural mental health and substance abuse services. This work will be divvied up among collaborators at Group Health Center for Health Studies, Swedish Medical Center, the University of Washington, and the Washington Department of Social and Health Services.

Patrick Stayton, a bioengineering professor at the University of Washington, is spearheading the largest single grant, worth $7.2 million. This money will go toward work on how to better deliver biotech drugs to where they need to go within cells. He is collaborating on the work with partners at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

One of the proposals that fell short in its quest for a state grant was from the University of Washington, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and Fate Therapeutics, a biotech startup company with operations in San Diego and Seattle. Fate and its academic collaborators, led by Beverly Torok-Storb of the Hutch, were asking the state for support in setting up an innovation center to “reprogram” adult skin cells to become like stem cells, with the potential to form any other cell type in the body. The work was first demonstrated last year by Japanese researcher Shinya Yamanaka and University of Wisconsin researcher James Thomson, and made headlines around the world.

Here are the other five finalists that didn’t make the cut, based on a phone interview with Dianne Needham, a spokeswoman for the state life sciences fund:

—Jonathan Himmelfarb of the University of Washington had applied for a grant to a chronic kidney disease collaborative.

—Mary Larimer of the UW asked the board to fund a Center for the Study of Health and Risk Behaviors.

—Karin Rodland of Battelle’s Northwest Division sought to form an integrated research program for chronic pulmonary diseases.

—Matthew O’Donnell, the Dean of the UW College of Engineering, led a group that is aiming to build a center for diagnostic and therapeutic uses of ultrasound technology.

—Gwenn Garden of the UW was aiming to set up a neurotherapeutics evaluation center.

The board didn’t discuss any of the proposals it turned down in public, so this is going to require some follow-up. I’m planning to meet with John DesRosier, the fund’s director of programs, tomorrow to learn more, so if you have questions you’d like to ask, send me a note at editors@xconomy.com

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