Biotech Drug Discovery in Seattle: A Look Back


Xconomy Seattle — 

The drug discovery and development process is a difficult one that takes considerable expertise in both the research and business realms. Seattle currently has approximately 103 biotechnology companies, 21 of which are publicly traded. The area also has a number of non-profit research organizations that participate in a variety of efforts to find new medicines. Biotech companies have been operating here for some 30 years now, during which time some 42 companies have either been acquired or gone out of business. So what are the prospects for developing new drugs here in Seattle? To address this question, I thought it might be helpful to look back at the track record of our local biotechs. Just how many drugs have we developed locally?

Deriving an answer to this question turned out to be anything but simple. Some drugs were discovered and developed here, some drugs were discovered elsewhere but were developed for new clinical indications by Seattle companies, and some drugs were simply acquired and then sold by our local biotechs. There are a few other caveats I should point out. A majority of these drugs were developed with the help and financial assistance of big pharma partners. Biotechnology also formed the technological basis for several companies that developed medical devices that went on to become FDA approved and treat patients, as noted below. Finally, I want to acknowledge that there have been a number of successes locally in medical devices, agricultural biotech, diagnostics, and biocomputing software applications. However, my focus today is on drug discovery and development. Let’s take a look back and see where we’ve been:

Seven Drugs Discovered and Developed by Seattle Biotechs

Leukine (sargramostim) was developed by Immunex and was FDA approved in 1991 to stimulate the proliferation of white blood cells in patients recovering from bone marrow transplants. Leukine only captured a small share of the market due to stiff competition from Amgen’s competing drug filgrastim (Neupogen), which was approved a month earlier by the FDA for a much wider clinical indication. Amgen’s purchase offer for Immunex led to the divestiture of Leukine to Berlex, the US subsidiary of Schering AG, for antitrust reasons. Berlex was in turn acquired by Bayer in 2006, who subsequently sold Leukine to Genzyme in 2009.

Enbrel (etanercept) was originally developed by Immunex for use in the treatment of sepsis, but it failed in its clinical trials. While most companies would have buried a failed drug, Immunex resurrected Enbrel by testing it in clinical trials with rheumatoid arthritis patients. Strongly positive results led to FDA approval in 1998. Subsequent clinical trials expanded its use for a number of disorders, including juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, and plaque psoriasis. Acquiring Enbrel was the primary reason Amgen purchased Immunex in 2002. Enbrel went on to become the best selling biologic drug in the world, with worldwide sales in 2008 of $7.4 billion. Amgen’s purchase of Immunex also brought on board the monoclonal antibody that would become panitumumab (Vectibix), and prevented a nasty patent war between the companies over intellectual property that led to the newly approved osteoporosis drug denosumab (Prolia).

Cialis (tadalafil) was initially discovered by … Next Page »

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Stewart Lyman is Owner and Manager of Lyman BioPharma Consulting LLC in Seattle. He provides strategic advice to clients on their research programs, collaboration management issues, as well as preclinical data reviews. Follow @

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4 responses to “Biotech Drug Discovery in Seattle: A Look Back”

  1. Dan Eramian-CTI says:

    Excellent review of drug development by Seattle based companies. Just a couple of extra facts. CTI sold Trisonex for $68 M with another potential $100 M if certain milestones are met. CTI bought Zevalin for $10M and eventually sold it for $31 M.

  2. Gary Keizur says:

    Stewart; actually Lilly ICOS received an approvable letter for Cialis in April 2002. The JV submitted its complete response in May 2003 and received approval in November 2003. Lilly acquired ICOS for $2.3 billion in January 2007. Worldwide sales of Cialis were $1.4 billion in 2008 and $1.56 billion in 2009.

  3. Jonathan Kil says:

    Stewart, what a wonderful and detailed report demonstrating the lengthy and often winding road to get a drug finally approved. I’m also amazed at how often a Ph-II or Ph-III clinical asset is sold or repositioned until it finally hits.

  4. Thanks to Dan and Gary for filling in a few details on the transactions that they covered, and to Jonathan (and many others) for the positive feedback I received on this trip down memory lane. I’ll make a note to revisit and update this piece at the end of the current decade.