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Roger Perlmutter speaking at the 2019 Life Science Innovation Northwest conference in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / James Thorne)

Two months after Merck acquired Seattle-based biotech Immune Design for $300 million, the president of Merck Research Laboratories, Roger Perlmutter, says the city’s life science community has plenty more to offer.

“Great ideas emerge here all the time, and there’s a spirit of entrepreneurship. So I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there’s a larger biotechnology organization that comes about here in Seattle,” Perlmutter told GeekWire after delivering the keynote address at the 2019 Life Science Innovation Northwest conference in Seattle this morning.

Startup acquisitions by industry giants can be a mixed blessing for the life sciences community, confirming the value of the innovations that emerge from the region but also reducing the number of major independent companies with headquarters in the region. Other recent examples include Celgene’s acquisition of Seattle-based immunotherapy standout Juno Therapeutics for $9 billion, which was followed by Bristol-Myers Squibb’s deal to acquire Celgene for $74 billion.

Perlmutter traces his Seattle roots back to 1984 when he joined the biochemistry and human genetics department at the University of Washington, where he later helped start the immunology department. He also worked at Caltech under Lee Hood, who would go on to found the Institute for Systems Biology and the health startup Arivale in Seattle.

“I’ve always felt that the Seattle intellectual community is especially vibrant and having been a member of it for so many years, I still consider myself a member of it,” said Perlmutter, who led research and development at biopharmaceutical company Amgen prior to joining Merck.

Seattle was recently rated the top emerging life sciences hub in the U.S. by commercial real estate firm CBRE.

Perlmutter said that Merck doesn’t yet have firm plans for the future of Immune Design. “We’re still in the kind of learning phase, the planning process,” he said. Merck bought the company with the hope of boosting its capabilities in vaccine development for infectious diseases and cancer.

Perlmutter also revealed his view on the future of cell-based immunotherapies to treat cancer. Speaking at the 2019 Life Science Innovation Northwest conference in Seattle, he said the future of cancer treatment is to define more specifically how the immune system response works.

“The central question is, where does the specificity come from? How is it that these T cell populations are directed against the tumor?” he said. “We still cannot describe that in any one cancer patient.”

“The frontier really is a defining that,” he added. “Because if we knew that, then we could engineer better molecules, better cells, and better reagents in a bottle that could provide broad benefit to patients suffering from malignant diseases.”

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