Health/Life Sciences

Launched from courtroom oversight, a Seattle analysis establishment rebrands and resets

Corey Casper, CEO of AAHI (left) and Jeff Gudarian, director of laboratory management. (AAHI Photo / Delaney Brown Photography)

When a court-appointed overseer took hold of the operations of the Infectious Disease Research Institute in early 2020 it was unclear how the Seattle organization would weather the change.

After cutting budgets and paying debts, the institute has now re-emerged as a leaner enterprise with new philanthropic support. It has been rebranded as the Access to Advanced Health Institute (AAHI) and a King County court has approved its exit from receivership, the organization announced Wednesday.

The Infectious Disease Research Institute was founded in 1993 with a broad mission to address diseases affecting low- and middle-income countries, and was known for its vaccine programs. It also was set up as a nonprofit that operated like a biotech company, taking discoveries through early-stage research to manufacturing and clinical trials.

But such an ambitious scope was not sustainable, said CEO Corey Casper, who is also a professor of medicine and global health at the University of Washington and an affiliate professor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute. According to a 2019 report in the New York Times, executives and board members were concerned about financial solvency and the direction of the institute under its previous CEO, founder Steven Reed.

Casper, who became interim CEO in 2019 before permanently taking the helm in early 2020, recommended that the institution voluntarily enter receivership. The state-authorized receiver, Shelly Crocker, helped establish a new executive team and board, and pay off debts to the landlord, vendors and other entities.

The institute now focuses on a few core technologies that it can license at earlier stages to biopharma companies.

“Rather than being the organization that was going to develop, manufacture, distribute and commercialize a vaccine for leprosy, now we see ourselves as an organization that makes the fundamental enabling technology for vaccines,” said Casper.

The institute’s once-renowned tuberculosis vaccine program has been mainly absorbed by Seattle Children’s Research Institute. Reed, who is now CEO of Seattle vaccine company HDT Bio, is no longer affiliated with the institute.

The institute is still located in the same building in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood. But it occupies only one floor instead of two and a half, and its workforce has shrunk to about 60 from 120 in 2019.  

One key to the organization’s turnaround has been negotiating new licensing agreements, which are also structured so that technology is accessible to poor regions, said Casper. The institute also has a strengthened its conflict of interest policy.

During the restructuring process, work at the institute has continued. AAHI’s more recent accomplishments:

  • Development of a candidate COVID-19 RNA vaccine designed to be stable at room temperature. The vaccine will soon enter clinical trials through an agreement with San Diego-based biotech company ImmunityBio.
  • Expansion of a project to develop an RNA nasal spray vaccine against pandemic influenza. The project is funded by the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and the technology has the potential to also be deployed for COVID-19 vaccines.
  • Forging of licensing agreements with outside partners for the organization’s adjuvants, substances added to vaccines to give them a boost.
  • Leading and supporting the development of networked satellite institutions in South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Ghana, and Uganda.

AAHI is now also supported by a “very significant” philanthropic donation by the Chan Soon-Shiong Family Foundation, said Casper. The foundation is associated with the Giving Pledge, a group of individuals who have pledged to give the majority of their wealth, created by Warren Buffett, Melinda French Gates, and Bill Gates.

Michelle Chan and Patrick Soon-Shiong aim to “erode and eliminate disparities in health care” through their foundation, according to the Giving Pledge website. Shiong is a long-time biotech entrepreneur and billionaire, and he is also founder and chair at ImmunityBio. He is also on the AAHI board.

The AAHI labs. (AAHI Photo / Delaney Brown Photography)

With the restructure, narrowed focus, new licensing agreements and philanthropic support, AAHI has a bright future, said Casper. “We anticipate a period of significant growth over the next couple of years,” he added.

Casper notes that without links to stronger institutions like universities or without deep philanthropical support, it’s hard to keep a nonprofit biomedical research institute afloat. In 2016, Seattle’s Institute for Systems Biology was acquired by Providence, and in 2018 the Center for Global Infectious Disease Research merged with Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

Added Casper: “It’s only organizations that are strategic, lean, and productive, and that are executing that are going to make it as an independent, nonprofit biomedical research Institute.”

When asked on email to clarify the relationship between Shiong and AAHI, and how the organization will manage potential conflicts of interest, an AAHI spokesperson replied, “AAHI is an independent Washington State non-profit biotech research institute – a public charity, operated for the public benefit – launching on strong financial footing with a robust pipeline of federally funded work and important new collaborations with commercial partners. More to come on our relationship with the Chan Soon-Shiong Family Foundation in the coming weeks.”

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