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University of Washington biochemists David Baker and Neil King show off molecular models of proteins at UW’s Institute for Protein Design. (UW IPD Photo / Ian Haydon)

Biotech giant Amgen is putting up the money to fund three research projects in partnership with the University of Washington’s Institute for Protein Design (IPD).

Amgen declined to disclose the financial terms of the deal or the specific projects. But one aim of the partnership is to modify an existing group of cancer drugs, known as BiTE antibodies, so that they can target more kinds of cancer tumors. Amgen is pursuing Phase 1 studies for its BiTE technology.

“All of these projects have one thing in common, which is de novo protein design — the development of proteins that didn’t exist in nature but could be potentially very useful in combination with more traditional biologics like antibodies or newer biologics like these BiTEs,” said Lance Stewart, chief strategy and operations officer at the IPD.

One central challenge of developing cancer-targeting immunotherapy drugs is to engineer them to distinguish healthy cells from cancerous ones. The hope is that proteins designed entirely from scratch — which is the institute’s raison d’être — can make the drugs more targeted.

The organizations also said that IPD may help Amgen to create antibodies for challenging drug targets and to find new ways to use the immune system to fight disease.

David Baker, director of the IPD, said the partnership is “in some ways a match made in heaven” given the complementary strengths of the two organizations. “This partnership, which is broader than other pharma partnerships we’ve had, allows [us] to bring bear our new technology on the most pressing medical problems.”

This isn’t the first time that Seattle-base IPD has partnered with a large drugmaker. PVP Biologics, a startup that spun out of the institute and is targeting celiac disease, signed a $35 million deal with Takeda in 2017 to develop its enzyme-based therapy.

Two months ago, the institute won a $45 million grant from The Audacious Project at TED. Baker previously said that money would be used to hire “considerably more” staff, adding to the 100 employees it had at the time of the announcement, and to launch more startups.

At the start of this year, the institute launched its latest startup, Neoleukin Therapeutics, which is creating a cancer-fighting drug derived from Interleukin-2, a powerful protein that fights cancer but is highly toxic.

Amgen once had a large presence in the Seattle area, but that era ended five years ago with the closure of a 30-acre waterfront campus that it inherited after acquiring Immunex in 2001. Expedia is set to move into the campus later this year.

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