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March 26, 2010 at 12:50 PM

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Seattle BioMed moves from tiny lab to research powerhouse

Posted by Kristi Heim

From its beginnings as a tiny lab in Issaquah with a staff of five, the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute has grown to more than 300 people and is about to test one of the world's first vaccines for malaria on a group of volunteers.

"It's stunning to me we have been able to come so far so quickly," said Ken Stuart, who founded the private lab in 1976 as Seattle's first global health organization and now heads the largest independent non-profit dedicated to infectious disease research. (The non-profit known as SBRI is now officially acronym-free after re-branding itself Seattle BioMed.)


Malaria researcher Stefan Kappe stands in the "warm room" where mosquitoes are raised in the lab at the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute.

Advances have come in "small, imperceptible steps," he said, addressing a crowd of more than 500 at the annual Passport to Global Health event last night.

Now the institute is about to embark on a big one. In a few months, volunteers will be bitten by mosquitoes carrying a cloned strain of malaria to test a malaria vaccine candidate developed by Seattle BioMed researcher Stefan Kappe.

The malaria project started in 2000 and now is the sole focus of 100 scientists, Kappe said. The German native who studied at Notre Dame and taught at New York University said he came to Seattle in 2003 with a dream to succeed where others had failed.

A $50,000 grant from private donations helped him sort infected liver cells, and $32.5 million in funding from the Gates Foundation helped him take the concept from mice to humans.

His approach to the vaccine is using genetic engineering to remove two key genes and make the malaria parasites harmless. The first part of the human trials is a safety phase to make sure the vaccine doesn't make anyone sick. The next part involves infecting the vaccinated group with malaria later this year. The trial, to be held at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, involves 26 people. Results will be announced in early 2011.

Later the team will need to test the vaccine in Africa and identify strains that protect for the longest time at the lowest dose, Kappe said.

In the future, inside its South Lake Union building, Seattle BioMed will be able to use its own newly built Malaria Clinical Trials Center (MCTC), one of four facilities in the world that can test new malaria treatments and vaccines in humans. More than 300 people in the Seattle area have already signed up as volunteers for trials of malaria drugs and vaccines, which could begin later this spring or summer.

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