SEATTLE – Harlan and Chad Robins founded Adaptive Biotechnologies, based in Seattle 12 years ago, to find a cure for cancer. Now they have expanded their mission to fight COVID-19.
Adaptive sells an ultra-detailed blood test that analyzes immune responses to various diseases. The technology can advance the research, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer, autoimmune diseases, and infectious diseases.
“Your immune system knows every disease you have,” said Harlan Robins, chief scientific officer at Adaptive. “If we could just ask the immune system what it knows, we could diagnose any disease.”
The company now hopes its technology can help government agencies make more informed decisions related to COVID-19. Adaptive has developed a special test that provides new data on how immune cells react to the coronavirus.
If successful, it would be another important contribution from researchers in the Seattle area with roots in the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to fight COVID-19. As the pandemic began, the Seattle Flu Study – a partnership between the University of Washington Medicine, Fred Hutch, and Seattle Children’s Hospital – expanded its work on tracking the flu by monitoring COVID-19. The own Dr. Larry Corey of the Cancer Center was welcomed by Dr. Anthony Fauci hires to oversee government sponsored clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines. And Fred Hutch’s computer biologist Trevor Bedford has long been a leader in mapping mutations and variants for the disease.
Adaptive would also be another successful startup that emerged from the cancer research center. The company was founded by the two brothers in 2009 after Harlan and his team made a discovery at the center.
With a market capitalization of approximately $ 5.5 billion and 800 employees, Adaptive is the largest active company to emerge from the cancer center. It ranks second after Juno Therapeutics, which was acquired for $ 9 billion in 2018. With 17 active startups, Fred Hutch executives are confident that Adaptive and Juno will come here for more.
“Worse than looking for a needle in a haystack”
In the human bloodstream, special cells, so-called T cells, help the immune system to recognize diseases. However, because the body has hundreds of millions of different types of T cells – many specific to each disease – analyzing these T cells is challenging.
Some of the most advanced genetic sequencing tools on the market still “ignore” T-cell genetic codes because of their great diversity, said Dr. David Koelle, professor of the immune system at UW Medicine.
Adaptive is investigating this problem by using chemistry and software to analyze the unique genetic codes that identify each type of T cell.
T cells replicate when they encounter a specific threat, Koelle said. They act as a “memory” to help the body react better if it is ever exposed to the same threat again. Analyzing which T cells someone has can help uncover the diseases they have faced in the course of their life.
Microsoft, which invested $ 45 million in Adaptive in 2017, is helping the company compare genetic codes found in blood samples with hundreds of millions of other genetic codes that Adaptive has on file. The project requires computing power similar to that of an entire Internet search engine, said Peter Lee, Microsoft’s vice president.
“It’s worse than looking for a needle in a haystack,” said Lee. “What you are looking for is a pattern of whether certain hay stalks are … the shape of a tree.”
Less than a year after the company went public in 2019, the coronavirus pandemic took center stage on the human immune system. Adaptive also geared its infrastructure to COVID-19 and took thousands of blood samples from almost every continent in order to analyze the T-cell immune response to the virus.
In March, the company received emergency approval from the Food and Drug Administration for its extended test called “T-Detect COVID”, which it claims can detect current and previous infections of the disease. Adaptive also recently licensed technology to Norway-based Vaccibody to develop vaccines that specifically target COVID-19 variants.
Adaptive’s broader vision with COVID-19 ensures America will develop pandemic guidelines based on domestic data that will include not only antibody responses to vaccines but also T cell responses, giving a more complete picture of how the immune system is adapting to the coronavirus . Adaptive CEO Chad Robins noted that the government relies heavily on studies from Israel to make decisions about booster vaccinations.
“Where [the government] We put a lot of time and effort into funding vaccine development, but we haven’t systematically funded the immune response, âsaid Chad Robins.
From Lego bricks to booster shots
Only thirteen months apart, Harlan and Chad Robins were “like twins,” said their mother, Karen Robins. The boys grew up in Chicago and were avid Lego fans. Chad pointed to photos of the structure he wanted and his older brother Harlan would make it for him.
“Harlan will build it and Chad will sell it,” Karen Robins often recalled of her late husband, Larry.
After college, Harlan pursued science and research at The Hutch, while Chad moved into finance and real estate. At a conference in San Diego in 2009, Harlan presented a discovery he had made to analyze the genetic content of the immune system. After dozens of professors flocked to ask him about the technology, Harlan Chad called from the hotel pool and suggested he start a business.
While the company loses money on every COVID-19 test, it sees this work as an “obligation.” The entire company is “a few years” away from profitability, said Chad Robins.
Adaptive sells its technology primarily to academics and drug manufacturers. Dr. Whitney Harrington, an infectious disease researcher at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, uses Adaptive to study the transmission of immune cells from mother to baby through the placenta and breast milk. Other tools provide her with details about immune cells that Adaptive cannot. However, Harrington said a key benefit of Adaptive’s service is that it has easy access to results online and is less dependent on a computational biologist for initial insight.
Another category of customers are doctors who help diagnose diseases. They make up a “growing proportion” of the company’s revenue, said Chad Robins. Adaptive can, for example, help cancer patients to recognize remaining tumor cells well after treatment.
One challenge with diagnostic testing is getting reimbursement from “an insurance system that isn’t designed to promote prevention and screening,” said Evan Lodes, a partner in New York’s Senator Investment Group, which invested in Adaptive in 2015.
“Ultimately, we hope to get this blood test into primary care,” said Chad Robins. Still, he found that this was probably five years away.
Lodes isn’t worried. He said immunology and infectious disease therapeutics now sell more than $ 100 billion annually. “There is so much opportunity … it would be a shame to prioritize short-term profitability over growth,” he said.
âAmazingâ entrepreneurship at Fred Hutch
The tremendous growth of Juno and Adaptive has led Fred Hutchinson to find ways to replicate their success.
In recent years, the Cancer Center has strengthened the team that builds such startups and brings new knowledge to the market. It recruited Niki Robinson and Hilary Hehman, both of whom had built the commercial patent pipeline at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and hired them to market Fred Hutch’s discoveries to outside investors.
Hehman said she was “amazed” at how “entrepreneurial” the culture at Fred Hutch was. “I don’t know what The Hutch is all about, but I have a feeling that it attracts people who have this sensitivity.”
In the four years since 2017, the number of startups and licenses outside the center has almost doubled compared to the previous four years.
Still, Seattle has a long history of building biotech companies that will eventually be taken over by larger juggernauts. Years after Amgen bought Seattle-built Immunex for $ 16 billion in 2002.
“There is so much excitement about any company and then a little heartache when it is acquired,” said Leslie Alexandre, President and CEO of Life Science Washington. “The next thing you know is that the company has moved.”
Adaptive’s strategy of bringing products to market in all three major life sciences segments – research, diagnostics and drug discovery – is a testament to its commitment to building a “stand-alone” company, said Chad Robins.
The goal is “to be an anchor tenant in the Seattle area,” he said. “We did not build the company to be taken over.”
To that end, Adaptive opened a new office in Eastlake on Tuesday. Another hallmark of this commitment: Karen Robins, the brothers’ mother, has moved into a houseboat on Lake Union within sight of the office and often visits her sons for lunch.
“If it were up to her, she would be here every day,” said Chad Robins.