Washington Life Sciences Sector Delivers Global Health Impact

The impact of biotechnology and life sciences in Washington State is being felt far beyond the state's borders. Global health efforts by the state's research organizations, academic institutions and life sciences companies are helping to eradicate disease and improve the lives of thousands of people around the world.

By on

With its fusion of highly respected research institutions, cutting-edge biotech companies and world-renowned health care organizations, Washington state's life sciences industry is making a life-saving impact that reaches well beyond its borders.

The nearly 500 life sciences and global health organizations, two major research universities and a number of key research centers, including the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, are having a significant impact on the state's economy, employing more than 26,000 workers and attracting more than $900 million in National Institutes of Health grants.

And beyond Washington’s borders, the industry's efforts are helping to eradicate disease and improve the quality of life in dozens of countries. Nearly 200 organizations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are working to improve global health through research, training, education and public awareness. The state's research organizations, nonprofits and private companies have developed numerous innovative initiatives and technologies that have helped improve health around the world.

The Washington Global Health Alliance (WGHA), based in Seattle and funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, promotes and coordinates global health initiatives.

"Our whole mission is about leveraging the collective expertise in Washington and beyond," says Lisa Cohen, WGHA executive director. "We provide a framework for collective partnerships, connecting organizations and people with each other."

Cohen says many organizations don't realize they may be working on the same disease or region and could be more effective when working together.

"We are matchmakers in all sorts of ways," she says.

WGHA also educates legislators, the business community and the public about the importance of the life sciences/global health sector. The state government supports the industry through the Washington Global Health Fund which provides seed funding for global health technologies. The WGHA administers this program.

Fighting Infectious Diseases

Seattle Biomedical Institute (SBI) is a leading organization in the global health arena that works toward eliminating infectious diseases.

"That's what we all focus on in one way or another," says Randy Hassler, SBI chief operating officer. "That's what we come to work to do every day."

The institute's work focuses on a variety of diseases, including HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and other conditions caused by trypanosomes, parasites that can transmit such illnesses as sleeping sickness.

One of SBI's successes is its work toward creating a new HIV vaccine. SBI researchers, in collaboration with other organizations worldwide, are developing antigens, or proteins used to elicit an immune response to HIV in humans. Very early findings are promising.

The Infectious Disease Research Institute, also in Seattle, works to find solutions for neglected infectious diseases such as TB, parasitic diseases and leprosy. Its successes include diagnostic tests and screening tools.

"We have a pipeline that rivals any private company," says CEO Stewart Parker.

PATH, another Seattle-based nonprofit organization, takes an entrepreneurial approach to developing and delivering high-impact, low-cost solutions to promote health in more than 70 countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America and North America. The organization's work spans the spectrum of global health, from epidemic diseases such as AIDS and malaria to medical technologies and women's and children's health.

Washington: 'Confluence of Expertise'

The nexus of resources in global health in Washington extends to its world-renowned centers of medicine. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center's  2,700 faculty and staff members, including three Nobel laureates, are working to eliminate cancer, HIV and other related diseases.

The center gained acclaim with its bone marrow transplant research in the early 1980s, the first example of the human immune system's ability to cure cancer. The center's research has expanded into eradicating infectious diseases, which has been linked to lowering cancer risk. 

Hutchinson Center researchers are on the front lines of the global battle against HIV/AIDS, including hosting the world's largest HIV vaccine clinical trials network and pursuing innovative HIV prevention strategies, treatments and potential cures.

"There are a number of anchor institutions here in global health and the University of Washington is a powerhouse in terms of global health research," SBI's Hassler says. "We were an early pioneer in the area and over time other organizations have formed here. Momentum builds and people want to be where the action is. That is happening in Seattle and across the state of Washington."

The University of Washington is immersed in global health initiatives on several fronts, including its Department of Global Health, founded in 2007 in part through an endowment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The department bridges the university's School of Medicine and its School of Public Health, and its interdisciplinary approach leverages all 16 UW schools and colleges to focus on such global health issues as infectious diseases, workforce development, climate change, global medicine safety, and women's, children's and adolescent health.

With so many organizations working toward a common goal, locating in the state can provide important benefits.

"If you're working in the global health community, this is where you need to be, hands down," WGHA's Cohen says. "We have an incredible confluence of expertise concentrated here and experts willing to partner and collaborate."

Cohen says WGHA has mechanisms that connect new people and organizations with the community. "The work is too important not to have people working together to succeed," she says.


Kevin Litwin is the author of Crazy Lucky Dead and a freelance feature writer with a career spanning more than 20 years. He was previously an editor for a small-town newspaper for ... more

More Articles About Washington

Fri, 10/27/2017 - 19:55