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Riding the Diabetes Wave, Novo Nordisk Sees Chance to Scoop Up Biotech Talent in Seattle

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$12 million upfront to the smaller company, in exchange for giving Novo the rights to cherry-pick certain autoimmune disease drug candidates from VLST. The company, co-founded by Craig Smith, a co-discoverer of Enbrel, is doing exploratory science that it says could lead to major new insights into autoimmunity. The company is looking at the proteins that viruses secrete to help fend off an immune system reaction that might kill them as foreign invaders. The concept is to study these proteins, and the targets they hit on cells, to develop new drugs that mimic that same viral effect created by Mother Nature.

It could be worth a lot more to the smaller company if those drug candidates reach certain milestones in development, the companies said.

So far, Novo has hired a team of about 18 people, plans to hire another dozen in the next couple months, and will fit them in temporary lab space on the first floor of its building. The longer-term vision is to set up on the fourth and fifth floors of its building, owned by BioMed Realty Trust, which are currently under construction. Foster took me up there to show me the view, which offers a sweeping lookout over Lake Union, the Space Needle, and downtown.

Financial stability—and the job security and generous benefits that come with it—is one of the key selling points Foster underscores about his new employer. The company has already spent $2.5 million to set up the labs, and has shown its willingness to support basic science through the deal with VLST, he says. He personally worked with the Danish counterparts for 15 years while he was at ZymoGenetics, and says he has a pretty good idea what to expect from how they work. He wouldn’t be specific about the center’s goals, in terms of how many drug candidates it is supposed to produce for Novo’s clinical development teams in Denmark, but he insists he has solid backing from across the Atlantic to get this work moving.

“They are making a long-term commitment to Seattle’s that fairly massive,” Foster says of the bosses. “I love the science that’s going on at VLST. We’re committing a huge fraction of resources to the early stage research there, as well as our own internal programs.”

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