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Research 'factory' added to downtown Seattle's science hub

You may associate downtown Seattle with its shopping, hotels and offices, but the city's core also has a growing medical research community. From global-health focused non-profits to the University of Washington, it seems scientists all want to be near downtown.

The latest addition is a combination cancer research lab and bio-factory. Seattle Children’s Research Institute plans to open the new lab and "factory" in the Denny Triangle next month.

The factory aspect of Children's project is unusual for non-profit or academic research projects. It includes an air-tight clean-room, where workers in moon-suits will manufacture genetically modified white blood cells.

Cancer treatment

The lab and "Cell Manufacturing Facility" are led by Dr. Michael Jensen, whose focus is using immunotherapy to devise treatments for cancers. It’s more than a typical laboratory because they’ll be actually making the treatments, bypassing the usual step of waiting for a drug or biotech company to do the job.

In simplest form, Jensen's team plans to take a blood sample from a child, and genetically modify the immune cells in the laboratory. Then they'll grow millions of cells, and reinject them into the child's body. The white blood cells then would attack cancer cells.

Jensen says the goal is to speed the process of going from experimenting in mice to human trials:

"For parents whose children are being diagnosed now and into the future, it's all about time. When will it be when that next breakthrough therapy will come online and be available to cure my child?"

Paying for immunotherapy

Jensen gets federal funding for his research, but the lab itself is paid for by private foundations and other donors. He says pediatric cancers are often too small of a market to be very interesting to private companies. So the treatments need to be developed through the initial high-risk stages by the non-profit sector.

Immunotherapy got a recent boost when local biotech company Dendreon earned federal approval for its immunotherapy approach to prostate cancer. Although it costs $93,000 per patient, the Provenge treatment proved safe and effective.

Jensen will test the technique against three common childhood cancers: neuroblastoma, brain cancer and relapsed leukemia. Current treatments for these cancers can involve high doses of radiation or chemotherapy, which may leave lasting impacts on a young child.

Downtown research hub

Seattle Children’s now has parts of three buildings downtown, not far from other non-profit research sites in South Lake Union. This new lab used to be part of  biotech company Targeted Genetics, which no longer exists. Jensen says it would have been too expensive for a non-profit to build a clean-room manufacturing site like this from scratch.

And just last week, the University of Washington broke ground on its third research building on the edge of downtown, in the South Lake Union neighborhood.

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.