Seattle Biomed


Seattle Biomed pioneering ‘rational’ approach to vaccines | 

Early anti-vaccine hysteria. Cartoon of Edward Jenner administering cowpox vaccine to frightened young women, and cows emerging from different parts of people's bodies.
Early anti-vaccine hysteria. Cartoon of Edward Jenner administering cowpox vaccine to frightened young women, and cows emerging from different parts of people’s bodies.
Wikipedia, James Gilray

Vaccines are widely, legitimately, hailed as one of medicine’s most powerful weapons in the fight against infectious disease. Millions of lives are saved, deaths prevented, every year using this simple tool that can cost as little as a handful of pennies.

Holy bang for the buck, batman!

So it’s unfortunate we know so little about how vaccines actually work. Not knowing has spawned a persistent anti-vaccine movement by those who fear, based on little hard evidence, the potential for harm caused by tweaking our immune system.

But not knowing is also causing some problems for the biomedical community.

“I don’t see how we’re going to ever develop effective vaccines against AIDS, TB or malaria without first gaining a lot more insight into how the immune system works – and how vaccines promote immunity,” said Alan Aderem, president of Seattle Biomed, a research organization that has been working on matters of global health since Bill Gates was a teenager. Continue reading

A conversation with Nick Kristof, humanitarian provocateur | 

Nick Kristof inspires at Seattle Biomed's Passport to Global Health celebration 2013
Nick Kristof inspires at Seattle Biomed’s Passport to Global Health celebration 2013

The renowned New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a Pacific Northwest native (who with his daughter is hiking a big chunk of the Pacific Crest Trail this summer), was in Seattle this week to speak at Seattle Biomed‘s annual Passport to Global Health celebration.

I had a brief conversation with him, mostly about Being Nick Kristof, on our weekly podcast and in the transcript below.

Kristof is, for many, the voice of the humanitarian movement. Not surprisingly, he gave a rousing, moving talk Thursday evening for the Seattle Biomed crowd in which he emphasized the stunning progress that has been made in global health over the past few decades. He also spoke on the danger posed for sustaining this success story due to public apathy and the mistaken sense that the fight against poverty is too overwhelming, a ‘hopeless’ task.

“That’s one of the biggest misconceptions out there,” he said. “The sense that it’s hopeless.”

Continue reading

Infectious hope: When getting malaria makes sense | 

Flickr, Aya Rosen

It’s World Malaria Day. There’s been great progress against malaria over the past decade but most experts agree the best hope is to find an effective vaccine. Seattle Biomed is one of the world leaders in malaria vaccine research, but testing these experimental vaccines relies on people volunteering to get the vaccine — and get bitten. What it’s like to get infected for science.


By Cyan James, special correspondent

Cyan James

Lane Rasberry wants to better arm the world against malaria

“I’m going to get infected and I’m going to love it,” Lane Rasberry says with a smile.

Rasberry is about to spend at least five minutes with more than a dozen mosquitoes full of malaria parasites.

The mosquitoes huddle in a screened, pint-sized container, waiting for Rasberry to roll up his left sleeve, lay his forearm over the container, and drape a towel over his arm to simulate night. Then they launch, feeding on Lane until their breakfast clock runs out.

A Wikipedia editor by day, Rasberry also volunteers in a malaria vaccine trial at Seattle BioMed, where he belongs among a unique group of clinical subjects who intentionally get infected.

Why? For Rasberry, it’s because the research is both altruistic and convenient, and because it plays to his interest in science. “I actually enjoy participating,” he says, emphasizing research trials’ ability to create community and help others learn about scientific advances. Plus, since he grew up in Texas, the mosquitoes don’t really faze him.

Seattle Biomed, Earl Harper

Mosquito dissection

After Rasberry’s five minutes are up, a technician dumps his mosquitoes into an ethanol bath to kill them, then flicks off the mosquitoes’ heads, presses their torsos to extrude their innards, and swiftly isolates their salivary glands.

Cyan James

Skeeter dissection

The technician scans the tiny sickle-shaped glands under a microscope, searching for P. falciparum, the parasite that infects up to 500 million people with malaria every year and kills nearly two people every hour.

Continue reading

A look at the local global health “industry” of Washington state | 

The Washington Global Health Alliance and the City of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development has published a new report describing our region’s growing global health industry (even though they shy away from calling it that, preferring words like “sector” and such).

Called the 2011 Global Health Strategic Mapping and Economic Opportunity Portfolio, the report identifies local organizations working in global health, the number of jobs, types of projects overseas and many other interesting tidbits — including business opportunities. Some key findings:

  • Respondent’s organizations have 2,503 projects and initiatives in 156 countries.
  • In Washington, 2,979 people work in global health. Outside of the state, these 59 organizations support an additional 17,275 employees.
  • Washington has particular expertise in infectious & chronic disease and developing technologies & devices.
  • Washington global health organizations surveyed collaborate with 1,574 partners, located in 111 countries across the world.


Continue reading

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

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.

Tom Paulson

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.” Continue reading

Using supercomputers to find vaccines against malaria, AIDS and TB | 

Flickr, ghinson

Scientists in Seattle hope to pioneer a more “rational” approach to vaccine development, exploiting powerful computers to better identify immune system targets and reduce the huge burden (and cost) of clinical testing.

“I intend to focus first on malaria vaccines,” said Alan Aderem, an internationally recognized immunologist who will soon be taking the helm of Seattle BioMed. Aderem co-authored a paper in this week’s edition of Nature in which he outlines a new strategy aimed at discovering vaccines against HIV, TB and malaria.

Arguably, the ways in which researchers test and develop vaccines against disease today haven’t changed that much since the 18-century British physician Edward Jenner injected a young man with cowpox to see if it would protect him from smallpox. It did and, so the story goes, vaccines and the science of immunology were born.

Scientists certainly have more sophisticated tools and methods today, but testing a vaccine is still often a “shot in the dark” because of our incomplete understanding of how the immune response works. Continue reading

Students dissecting mosquitos, tracking down malaria | 

Students from Whitman Middle School on Thursday learned a bit more about malaria research by perfecting a very specialized, if peculiar, skill — dissecting mosquitoes to remove their salivary glands. This was the latest class of recruits for Seattle BioMed’s BioQuest program.

Here are some of the young scientists at work, beginning with 12-year-old Emma Doherty. Another 6th grader featured later in this slide show can be seen grimacing as she watched an instructional dissection (which, frankly, looks more like what I would call a dismembering) of a mosquito on a display screen.

She later turned to her microscope and began pulling into pieces the skeeters, mumbling to herself: “This is disgusting.” But she was smiling.

Seatte BioMed is home to one of the world’s largest malaria research teams. One of their primary goals is to identify an effective vaccine against malaria. BioQuest typically gears its program toward high school students. These students were given special, advanced access as finalists in Whitman’s science fair.

Seattle Biomed gets $9m from Gates to boost malaria vaccine work | 

Luke Timmerman of Xconomy reports today that Seattle Biomed, a global leader in malaria research thanks to funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has gotten a boost.

In the article, Timmerman notes that the $9 million grant is aimed at supporting a “systems biology” approach to identify new immune system targets for candidate vaccines. In that sense, it is also a Gates grant aimed at supporting the work of Alan Aderem, who is moving his lab there from Lee Hood’s Institute for Systems Biology:

Seattle Biomed made a push in the direction of systems biology—which seeks to study whole biological organisms in context, rather than one gene or protein in isolation—last month. The nonprofit recruited Aderem, the co-founder of the Institute for Systems Biology, to help infuse its global health research efforts with this bold brand of science.