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Life Science Innovation NW Notes: SeaGen, NanoString, Viket, & More

Xconomy Seattle — 

Fifty years ago at the World’s Fair, Seattle’s visionaries were thinking about exploring space. Today, the CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation observed, more of the region’s innovators are focused on “terrestrial” matters like global health and biotech.

Whether that’s good or bad for mankind, we can debate another day. But as Jeff Raikes noted in his opening keynote at the Life Science Innovation Northwest conference yesterday, Seattle has a lot of smart people doing high-impact work in world of drug development, vaccines, devices, and diagnostics. About 80 companies had a chance to show their stuff yesterday to an audience of their peers, partners, and investors, providing all kinds of food for thought.

This kind of conference isn’t where news gets made, but it is where the schmoozing and intellectual cross-pollination happens that can lead to news down the road. Here were a few of the people and companies that I watched yesterday, at the beginning of the two-day meeting at the Washington State Convention Center.

Seattle Genetics CEO Clay Siegall started off the conference with some momentum, talking about brentuximab vedotin (Adcetris), the new drug that combines the targeting ability of an antibody with a toxin to make it more potent. Siegall, who co-founded the company 15 years ago with this kind of dream product in mind, seemed to have a little extra bounce in his step yesterday for what could been a pretty ho-hum corporate update. The product was approved by the FDA last August for a couple of rare lymphomas, and has beaten most people’s sales expectations. Now Seattle Genetics has put together an expansion plan that Siegall says is inspired by Genentech’s work with rituximab (Rituxan), another lymphoma drug that generates about $6 billion a year in worldwide sales.

As was seen with Rituxan, Seattle Genetics is looking to make its drug the mainstay of therapy for patients with earlier forms of disease, for those getting repeat dosing, for people with other cancers that express the CD30 biomarker that Adcetris hits, and for patients around the world. Adcetris—a drug which costs $13,500 a dose, and which is given every three weeks—could end up being a $1 billion a year seller at its peak, Siegall has said. “We envision Adcetris will be a global brand with a big opportunity,” he said yesterday.

Seattle Genetics CEO Clay Siegall

At the close of his talk, Siegall had one last slide that could serve as a bit of a challenge to the Seattle biotech community. Of the 26 biotech companies with stock market valuations of $1 billion or more, most of them are in California and the Northeast corridor. Only two are from Seattle—Dendreon and Seattle Genetics. “I want to see more companies in that group,” Siegall said.

—Seattle-based NanoString Technologies showed how it has grown from a company with interesting technology a couple years ago into a company with a truly fast-growing business. CEO Brad Gray talked about how NanoString generated $18 million in revenues in 2011, a 50 percent gain over the prior year. The company figures it has captured about 10 percent of the total potential market for its nCounter instrument, which provides researchers with a digital readout on how genes are expressed in a sample, or how many RNA or microRNA molecules are in a sample. NanoString started by selling its $235,000 instrument to academic researchers, and it is now tapping into new demand from biotech and pharmaceutical companies, Gray said. Each instrument generates about $100,000 a year in sales of special chemical reagents, showing that customers are putting the machine to work, he added. The next big opportunity in NanoString’s sight is the clinical diagnostic market. The challenge will be to gather the data needed to win FDA approval in that segment, and then compete with a pioneer in the personalized medicine field, Redwood City, CA-based Genomic Health (NASDAQ: GHDX). “We’re not becoming a service business, we’re becoming a product business,” Gray said.

—Viket Medical, a startup founded by former Ekos vice president Bob Wilcox, made the first public presentation of its work at the Innovation Northwest conference. The idea is to create a suction device that vacuums out dangerous blood clots in the brain. He’s particularly focused on intracranial hemorrhage, the kind that comes from uncontrolled high blood pressure.

His task is to create a system that works by boring a hole in the skull, and threading a catheter with a sensor on the tip that can tell the operator when it’s inside a clot, and not brain tissue. Once that determination is made, the Viket (pronounced like ‘ticket’) system, should be able to suck out the clot in a matter of minutes, helping the patient recover better than they otherwise would on existing treatment.

The market for such a device could be $550 million, Wilcox says, based on an average sale price of about $5,500 for the device.

—Algomedix, founded by pharmacologist Jeff Herz, is pursuing a new idea in the treatment of pain. There hasn’t been much in the way of innovation in pain treatment, and existing drugs like opioids and COX-2 inhibitors all have their drawbacks, like addiction and cardiovascular side effects. The idea at Algomedix is to make small-molecule drugs that block a target called TRPA1, a receptor channel that allows ions like salts to pass in and out of cells. This target, Herz said, gets involved early in the pain signaling process, before a signal makes its way to the spinal cord and brain.

Herz, the former director of discovery research at Seattle-based Omeros (NASDAQ: OMER), said he’s particularly intrigued with the TRPA1 target, because while it’s found in many tissues of the body, it’s not found in the brain. That means that a drug which blocks the target shouldn’t cause any of the usual central-nervous system side effects, like addiction, that cause so much trouble for people taking opioid. Based on the work done so far to develop drugs against the target, Algomedix expects to file its first application to start clinical trials in early 2014, Herz said. Given the size of the market is for chronic pain, which afflicts millions of people around the world, Big Pharma has already started to notice, Herz said. “We see this as a highly partnerable program. We have already had expressions of interest from a number of companies,” he said.