Washington State Leads in Life Sciences Research, Innovation

From lab research to medical device manufacturing, Washington is a global life sciences leader. More than 160 biopharmaceutical companies, 250 med techs and 36 nonprofit life science research organizations call Washington home.

Kelly Kagamas Tomkies
On Monday, December 17, 2012 - 11:20

From lab research to medical device manufacturing, Washington state is a life sciences heavyweight.

More than 175 biopharmaceutical companies, 250 med techs and 36 nonprofit life science research organizations call the Evergreen State home. The state that pioneered ultrasound imaging and cardiac defibrillators also boasts medical schools and universities that draw billions in research funding.

Biotech and Biomed Booster

Chris Rivera, president of the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association, says Washington's life science industry is consistent with its track record for innovation and entrepreneurship.

"Washington is emerging as the nexus for global health," Rivera says. "Outside Geneva, Switzerland, Washington has the largest life sciences concentration in the world."

The WBBA supports the state's $10.4 billion life science industry by promoting access to capital, partnerships, recruitment and commercialization. Advocacy also is provided on regional, state and federal levels. 

"Washington is a headquarters for information research, innovation and what is often called co-opetition," Rivera says. "Industry nonprofits and academic research institutes are all willing to sit at the table simultaneously to advance research and discovery. "

Medical Innovation in Washington

And discover they do. In 2012, global health-care company Novo Nordisk brought its North American Type 1 Diabetes Research Institute to Washington. And Seattle Genetics recently received FDA approval on a cancer drug for the treatment of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. In fact, three of the 21 drugs approved by the FDA in 2011 were discovered in Seattle.

More than 190 nonprofit organizations in the state are involved in global health through service delivery, research, training, education and public awareness, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world's largest foundation.

Seattle-based PATH is an international nonprofit transforming global health through innovation. Its $280 million budget helps deliver high-impact, low-cost solutions, from lifesaving vaccines and devices to collaborative programs with communities in 70 countries in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America and North America. The organization's entrepreneurial approach touches on all aspects of health care, from epidemic diseases such as AIDS and malaria to medical technologies to women and children's health.

And while Seattle is a global health-care hub, innovation is emerging from Spokane to the Tri-Cities region of southeast Washington.

Kennewick-based Cadwell Laboratories develops and manufactures neuromonitoring and diagnostic instrumentation used in the diagnosis of neurological, musculoskeletal and sleep disorders.

Supporting life sciences and global health development in Washington are a number of specialized incentive and funding programs. The state, for example, offers a sales and use tax waiver/deferral program for biotechnology and medical device manufacturers.   

The state also promotes life sciences innovation through programs such as The Life Sciences Discovery Fund, created in 2005 by the governor and state legislature to foster growth of Washington's life sciences sector. With a commitment for $350 million over a 10-year period, LSDF invests money from the Master Tobacco Settlement Agreement in research that demonstrates the strongest potential for delivering health and economic returns to the state.

In July 2012, for example, LSDF announced $570,000 in awards as part of a new corporate grant program to support  commercialization of new health and health-care products. The early-stage companies receiving the awards are developing and testing concepts that range from a technology for predicting patient  responses to anticancer drugs to a new approach for removing blood clots from the brain for a specific type of stroke to an ultrasound-guided system for placing catheters in the brain to drain excess cerebrospinal fluid.

Well Schooled

Washington's life sciences and health research capabilities are vast and deep. From renowned universities to specialty institutes, some of the world's most innovative advances and medical breakthroughs were born in the state's labs.

Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul Allen provided seed money to found the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Brain Science, where leading minds in biology and technology collaborate on new ways of understanding the human brain. The 63,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art lab includes robotic systems, automated digital imaging stations and a vast data center with astounding processing capabilities.  

The Infectious Disease Research Institute in Seattle develops advanced products for the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and leprosy that are endemic in impoverished areas. 

At Seattle's Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason, a  team of 220 researchers, including 22 principal scientists, is dedicated to finding causes and cures to eliminate autoimmune diseases including Type 1 diabetes, arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and scleroderma. BRI's $40 million in research volume in 2012 includes grants from the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and Department of Defense, as well as major regional and national foundations

The University of Washington plays a lead role in furthering research within the state. As the second-largest biomedical research university in the country, the University of Washington School of Medicine unites academic and private researchers from across the state's life sciences continuum. In fact, a third of UW Medicine's $3.8 billion budget goes toward research.

"We approach research in an interdisciplinary fashion," says Dr. Paul Ramsey, CEO of UW Medicine and dean of the UW School of Medicine. "We receive $40 million and $50 million grants that depend on individuals from different areas working together to address major problems in health care."

UW Medicine is the only U.S. medical school to cross state lines as a publicly supported medical school. Known as WWAMI, the program represents a unique partnership between Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho, receiving funding from all five states and providing one of the most cost-effective programs nationwide. US News & World Report  has ranked the program No. 1 in the nation for primary care training for 18 years running.

"We've worked together to develop the highest quality product at the best cost," Ramsey says. "We're a leader in the life sciences research arena and the education of the next generation of health-care professionals."



Kelly Kagamas Tomkies is an award-winning freelance writer, editor and proofreader with more than 15 years of editorial experience.