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Dr. Jim Olson speaking at the 2015 GeekWire Summit. (GeekWire Photo)
Dr. Jim Olson speaking at the 2015 GeekWire Summit. (GeekWire File Photo)

There are two basic models for scientific research — industry and academia — and each has its strengths. Academia can support sustained, long-term research. Industry is better at pushing the envelope with its entrepreneurial spirit. So a long-debated question is, how can researchers take advantage of both of these traits?

Dr. Jim Olson, a brain cancer researcher, may have a solution to this conundrum. He runs the Protein Therapeutics Program at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and has designed the program to benefit from both sustained academic research and the hard-charging nature of a biotech company.

Olson discussed the program’s structure on a recent episode of the GeekWire Podcast — an excerpt of which you can hear below — and in a follow-up interview.

Olson explained that research institutions are normally set up like the Main Street of a small town, each lab working like its own mom-and-pop store, focused on one specialty. “Trying to do something absolutely amazing in that kind of system is like asking a Main Street dry cleaner and the store and the bakery to somehow do something that changes the world,” he said.

“You don’t expect great things to come out of that,” Olson said. “You can sometimes create synergies, sometimes by chance, sometimes by design, but they’re not huge, change-the-world kind of synergies in most cases.”

“You expect people to go along in an iterative fashion, and accomplish things for people, but here we are in Seattle surrounded by Amazon, Starbucks, Boeing, people with grand ideas and pulling things together in a way that you can achieve a grand idea,” he said.

On the other hand, research in the private sector is often underserved.

“Usually, when biotech companies are started, they’re mostly research-based and you get really strong research teams,” he said.

Researcher in the Protein Transfer Program examine scans of a brain tumor lit up with tumor paint, a compound that the project developed from scorpion venom.
A researcher in the Protein Transfer Program examine scans of a brain tumor lit up with tumor paint, a compound that the project developed from scorpion venom. (Fred Hutch Photo)

“But as soon as you get your first real development candidate that looks like it could be going into human clinical trials, very often nearly all or all your resources go into that clinical development program. And the research side gets shut down, or turned way down and put on the back burner,” he said.

Olson saw the advantages and disadvantages of each structure, and decided that he would try something drastically new: a hybrid of the two systems, which allows him and his fellow researchers to have the support of a large research institution with the entrepreneurial spirit of a private corporation.

The focus of the program’s research is optides — shorthand for “optimized peptides” — based on naturally occurring compounds produced by plants and animals. Olson and other Fred Hutch researchers in his program are looking for ways that these compounds could be used to treat diseases that are currently incurable.

The program is also supported by its philanthropic arm, Project Violet, named after an 11-year-old patient who asked that her brain be donated to cancer research after she passed away from an untreatable form of brain cancer. The research is unlike any other work being done, and could treat 80 percent of diseases that can’t be treated with current therapies, Olson said.

“It would be an awful shame to spin that out and have it be at risk of the vagaries of the biotech industry,” he said.

Dr. Jim Olson in the lab. (GeekWire File Photo / Todd Bishop)
Dr. Jim Olson in the lab. (GeekWire File Photo)

“What I have done is created a program that functions out of five labs across all divisions at the Hutch, and we really operate like a biotech company,” Olson said. Instead of each lab having a part-time crystallographer, or one person in charge of its protein sciences, there are teams within the program that provide that expertise to all five of the labs.

“We also emphasize to the team the importance of rapidly reading go, no-go decisions, and being very happy when the decision is no-go,” he said. “We don’t put the highest priority on publishing papers or getting the next grant. It’s more we make it a really high priority to get to good decision points, make the decisions, and move to the next decision.”

The program works closely with its industry partner, Blaze Bioscience, which was founded by Olson in 2010. Blaze staff sit in on weekly meetings in the lab to advise the researchers, and also licenses products that come out of the lab, like tumor paint, a compound derived from scorpion venom that helps identify cancerous cells during surgery.

The finances of this arrangement allow Olson and others in the program to keep doing pioneering work, without the risks associated with spinning it into a startup.

“Fred Hutch is not like an investor, we don’t need a return of X amount by five years from now. This institution is built to last,” Olson said.

However, Fred Hutch does receive royalties on every successful product to come out of the program, meaning the research could be a big financial success for the organization as time goes on. “And that money gets reinvested into research on cancers and other diseases,” Olson said.

Here’s how Olson explained the advantage of the relationship with Blaze.

Blaze is actually present in our laboratory meetings and they help us make decisions. They never take away our academic freedom but they help us make decisions, and likewise, if we discover something, most of the time when people in academic labs discover something, they then turn it over to their tech transfer office, and the tech transfer office is out there trying to shop it to different drug companies, and very often this sits in a folder, sometimes for years while the patent is expiring. And you don’t have a lot of life on a patent by the time you take a 15-year clinical trial process. So we know that when we develop something interesting that somebody already wants it. They’ve been talking to us about it for two years. We know they want it and we know that they’ll take it to the next level.

While Olson does think the program is a potential model for future research, he is careful to characterize the initiative as a learning process.

“I think the first step is for us to set and example and get it right,” he said. “As with any organization, we’re going through growing pains. And there’s something to be said for somebody to go through those growing pains, learn what they would do differently, and then be able to impart that message to other groups.”

“It’s a one-of-a-kind relationship between an institution like Fred Hutch and a biotech company,” he said. “We’re really trying to make it successful because we want to teach the world how to do it.”

[Editor’s Note: Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is a GeekWire sponsor.]

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