The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center Steam Plant building in Seattle. (Fred Hutch Photo / Robert Hood)

In 2016, B.C. Cancer Agency chief Dr. Malcolm Moore traveled from Vancouver to Seattle and paid a visit to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center for a guided tour. The B.C. Cancer Agency has done groundbreaking scientific research on the BRCA gene for breast cancer, ovarian cancer treatments, and precision medicine oncology; Fred Hutch is a world leader in immunotherapy. Yet it was Moore’s first visit to the research complex in Seattle. He returned impressed.

“I had no idea,” Moore said at the time.

Greg D’Avignon, president and CEO of the Business Council of British Columbia. (Business Council Photo)

Greg D’Avignon, president and CEO of the Business Council of British Columbia, brokered the introduction between the two science executives. He retold the story as part of a virtual event this week hosted by Cascadia Innovation Corridor Conference.

B.C. Cancer Agency and Fred Hutch are now co-developing isotopes for cancer diagnostics and conducting shared research on mRNA technology.

D’Avignon and his fellow co-chair of the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, are pushing for more of that type of exchange. They believe there are unexplored opportunities for scientific researchers and biotechnology companies to collaborate more along the Cascadia corridor and ultimately build out a life sciences cluster across the Pacific Northwest mega-region.

“We’re trying to build a connected ecosystem of labs, companies, and governments,” D’Avignon told GeekWire, comparing the potential in life sciences to the already-flourishing technology ecosystems between Seattle and Vancouver.

Some of that work is already underway. The Seattle-based Gates Foundation has granted Vancouver-based AbCellera two projects in the past four years. In 2017, Gates tapped AbCellera to work on tuberculosis antibodies. Two years later, the biotech company inked another arrangement, a $4.8 million commitment to focus on the prevention and treatment of three high-priority infectious diseases: HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis.

Zymeworks, a Vancouver-based clinical stage biotech company, operates a Seattle satellite office and is hiring at a rapid pace with more than 50 open positions between its two offices.

But leaders say there is potential for much stronger collaboration, especially among academic and research institutes. Pieter Cullis is the scientific director and CEO of the NanoMedicines Innovation Network in Vancouver. Most of his collaborations south of the U.S.-Canada border are in Pennsylvania and Boston, but he is eager to tap into the life sciences community just 150 miles south.

“There is such a wealth of experience and depth, particularly in the Seattle area,” Cullis said. “We have areas of expertise in both jurisdictions. They can very easily play off each other and take it to the next level.”

(BC Cancer Photo)

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, has been a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, there is a surging interest in and demand for everything from diagnostics to therapeutics to vaccines. The existing life sciences players on both sides of the border have been hard at work.

Fred Hutch has been on the cutting edge of real-time research to track community spread of COVID-19 variants. The Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle broke records when it began the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine trial just 66 days after the virus’ sequenced genome was released to the scientific community by Chinese researchers.

In November, AbCellera received emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for banlanivimab, a therapeutic that rescues hospitalization rates among COVID-19 patients by up to 80% that it developed in collaboration with Eli Lilly and Company.

On the other hand, the pandemic’s hardening of national borders, like the nearly year long closure of the U.S.-Canada border to non-essential travel, has forced a more inward perspective.

“There have been a lot of heads down working in a crisis — even wartime — mode at the provincial and federal level,” said Sue Paish, CEO of Canada’s Digital Technology Supercluster and co-chair of Canada’s COVID-19 Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel. “From a public health perspective, we’ve been looking more east-west than north-south.”

Dr. Charissa Fotinos, deputy chief medical officer of the Washington State Health Care Authority, echoed that view. “The most collaboration that we have done has been within the U.S. between the western states,” she said. “I’m not aware of a lot of cross-border collaboration.”

Emily Turner, Gates Foundation Global Health and COVID-19 Task Team Lead for Diagnostics, hinted at ad hoc cross-border collaboration between Washington and British Columbia scientists, but nothing in the way of formal partnerships. She did not respond to a follow-up query, but a Gates Foundation spokesperson pointed to AbCellera using blood from Washington state, where the first U.S. COVID patient was diagnosed in January 2020, to accelerate monoclonal antibody developments.

D’Avignon remained bullish, however, that proximity will continue to matter once the pandemic is in the rearview mirror and the border reopens.

“We have eight people [in this conference] in the middle of saving lives in a global pandemic living within 200 miles of each other,” he said. “Relationships matter and the potential for collaboration at speed by getting to know each other is powerful.”