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updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

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Lawmakers bring Life Science Discovery Fund to an end, not with a bang but a whimper

The fund established a decade ago by then-Gov. Christine Gregoire and the legislature with the lofty goal of supporting innovative research in this state to promote life sciences competitiveness, enhance economic vitality and improve health and health care has been terminated by the Legislature. And an oft-quoted line of poetry may best sum up the outcome: "not with a bang but a whimper."

The Life Science Discovery Fund (LSDF) was defunded by the Legislature at the insistence of the Republican Senate and at the eventual acquiescence of both the Democratic House and Democratic governor who had touted its importance to the state's future. In the rush to final budget passage, the fate of LSDF drew little attention except from the disappointingly few who understood its to the future of the state's economy.

Those who recognize the quote in the lead paragraph above as from T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men" should be forgiven for a quick sense of how appropriate the description "Hollow men" might be for the members of the Legislature.

And how appropriate also for that body might be the poem's line, "headpiece filled with straw."

The "whimper" is in the still unexplained rollover by both Democrats in the House and the governor himself after they had fought fiercely for LSDF funding and owned the vision space as it related to the importance of biotech and biopharma start-ups to the state's future.

The final budget was passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee last week after a conference committee had hammered out the details of issues in conflict, including the future of LSDF.  

In the end, House Democrats gave in and allowed a GOP-demanded shift of LSDF's treasury balance of $11 million to the state general fund and the stripping it of any revenue from any source over the coming biennium.  

I confidently (and obviously misguidedly) told friends and business associates the governor would use his line-item veto power to eliminate those LSDF death-knell provisions and turn GOP opposition to state support of entrepreneurs and biotech startups into campaign issues for Democrats next year.

Didn't happen. For reasons yet unexplained, the governor failed last week to employ the veto power he used a year ago to save the fund and thus become the political darling of those who saw LSDF as this state's message to the life sciences world about Washington's commitment to its future role in economic development in this state.

But for all the lamenting from those focused on how this state stacks up against competing states and the message LSDF's demise sends to entrepreneurs in other states, it needs to be remembered that LSDF's legacy is in the life science startups it funded and that are now growing and creating jobs.

And appropriately, one of the grant recipients, Seattle-based Omeros Corp., could possibly become a springboard for biopharma startups in the future because of its unusual program funded with a $5 million LSDF grant and, in an leading-edge partnership, $20 million from Paul Allen's Vulcan Capital in 2010.

Those potential spinouts could come from Omeros' G-protein coupled receptor (GPCR) program, a potentially lucrative focus in what is viewed as one of the most valuable families of drug targets.

GPCR's relate to key physiological processes in the body in which molecules bind to the receptors. GPCR relates to drugs that act on brain-cell receptors, unlocking them to drug development with such drugs representing 30 to 40 percent of marketed pharmaceuticals. Examples of the wide range of GPCR-drugs are antihistamines, opioids, alpha and beta blockers, serotonergics and dopaminergics.

 

The Omeros focus is on what are known as orphan GPCRs, those whose brain-cell receptors lack a certain DNA factor. There is a broad range of indications linked to orphan GPCRs, including cardiovascular disease, asthma, diabetes, pain, obesity, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia, learning and cognitive disorders, autism, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis and several forms of cancer.

 

A key Vulcan executive said at the time of the partnership announcement that the Omeros GPCR focus could accelerate new pipeline development across a broad range of highly attractive drug targets and can make a significant impact on the pharmaceutical industry.

 

Dr. Greg Demopulos, CEO of publicly traded Omeros, says the GPCR focus of his company is designed to promote the life science industry in this state in a way that is provided by other states that are spending millions to move life science to the fore in their economic development focuses.

 

But if the Omeros effort is successful in turning out startups to focus on various diseases that could relate to and be impacted by the GPCR research, the result would be a private-sector successor to, or funder of life science discovery since Vulcan Capital and LSDF have a right to receive a percentage of net proceeds generated by the GPCR program.

 

Meanwhile, the legislature, in head scratching fashion, didn't strike the Life Science Discovery Fund from existence, merely left it without resources to survivc.

 

But as a friend who has surveyed the legislative process for decades, and been closely involved with the lawmakers, explained: "This is how the legislature operates. They don't outright kill things.  They just turn off the money spigot because that's the way it's handled in the secretive budget process, which is gutless."

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