Working-class kid builds major research institute starting in strip mall

Ken Stuart

That’s the abbreviated story of Ken Stuart, founder of Seattle Biomed.

To look at the new building that today houses the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute (full name), listen to Stuart’s Boston accent and sit in the middle of Monday evening’s posh event marking this local research organization’s 35 anniversary, you might think Stuart came from privilege.

Ken Stuart, center, founder of Seattle Biomed, talks with Gates Foundation's Tachi Yamada

“My dad was a house painter and my mother a home-maker,” said Stuart, who grew up the youngest of four sons in the working-class Boston neighborhood of Brighton.

He could always walk across the Charles River and wander around MIT or Harvard, but when he finished high school Stuart at first just figured he’d go get a job and leave college life to the upper-class Brahmin.

“My parents didn’t really have the money for me to go to college,” he said.

But Stuart then discovered a program at Boston’s Northeastern University that allowed you attend classes for one term, work a term and alternate on that basis to pay your way through college.

He ended up working on an experimental farm, majoring in biology. Something about the science of life hooked him pretty early on, an obsession that blossomed into a full-fledged research addiction while doing a masters at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

“I discovered protozoan parasites and what we would now call part of global health, neglected infectious diseases,” said Stuart, who was and is still today primarily interested in African sleeping sickness. “I was fascinated. I couldn’t believe nobody was working on these things.”

Ken Stuart

As a budding scientist, he thought he had tapped into a gold streak — an area in biomedical research that caused massive death and disability worldwide which remained relatively unexplored by academia. Obviously, he thought, the research community would support research aimed at finding a solution to these massive health problems.

Nope.

Staying focused, seeking support

Stuart pursued his research into African sleeping sickness, aka trypanosomiasis (transmitted by the tsetse fly bite), and his doctorate. He spent some time in London, where he found like-minded colleagues, but upon return to the U.S. found little interest or support for his work.

In 1976, he decided to move to Seattle because he saw it as a community supportive of both basic biomedical research and scientific entrepreneurs. Eventually, Stuart teamed up with geneticist Ruth Shearer to form the Issaquah Biomedical Research Institute.

It was basically an empty office in a strip mall. Shearer lived in Issaquah so they set up shop there.

“I was a little naive,” Stuart chuckled.

He figured that if they could produce significant research findings, the rest would just fall into place. And they did produce significant discoveries, including a blockbuster finding about how certain parts of cells regulate energy production by switching on or off — using a process known as RNA editing.

But Stuart was still operating on the cheap, doing experiments on plywood benches in the Issaquah strip mall.

In 1980, he was asked to come make a presentation on sleeping sickness at the World Health Organization. He and Shearer, supported by grants, were able to bring in post-doctoral research assistants. Their work was beginning to be noticed, aided in part by the global attention given to a new infectious disease, AIDS.

The Gates Foundation steps in

The Issaquah Biomedical Research Institute eventually moved to Seattle, changing its name. It continued to produce solid science but was, in a sense, always operating at arm’s length from the major centers of research here, at the University of Washington, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Stuart recalls with a laugh when a friend of his who worked at the Hutch, the late Hal Weintraub, introduced him to the powerful director of the cancer center at the time, Bob Day, by identifying Stuart as also “the director of a research institution.”

It was when the Bill & Melind Gates Foundation got involved in global health that Stuart’s vision and mission was finally recognized. In 1999, the new Gates Foundation gave Seattle Biomedical $5 million to shift some its work on parasites to malaria. Stuart, who had always operated on a shoestring, knows how to leverage.

That initial grant allowed them to get further support to build new laboratory space and create what is today one of the world’s pre-eminent facilities working toward finding a malaria vaccine. Here’s a story I wrote for the Seattle PI in 2002 as they celebrated the move to a much bigger, and larger operation.

“It was lucky, in a way, that we never moved our work to the UW,” Stuart said. “I was allowed to develop this research institution as I saw fit.”

By staying focused on neglected diseases, Stuart’s preseverance paid off in a big way. He remains passionate about his work in science and, next year, plans to step down from his administrative position so he can return to focusing on his first love — research.

“People are still dying from African sleeping sickness,” he said. Stuart intends to dig deeper into the genetic regulation puzzle at play in this disease and also get more involved in immunological studies, specifically focusing on the malaria parasite.

The only sense of privilege that Stuart talks about is that he feels fortunate to be doing something that continues to fascinate him. Now that his institution is humming along, he can turn over the reins for someone else to administer. For Stuart, it’s back to the lab bench, if not the strip mall.

“Hey, I’m working class,” Stuart said. “I prefer the hands-on approach.”

Here’s a video, with some nice black-and white photos, on the history of Seattle Biomed:

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.