Cellular sleuthing

Inside deCODE’s Day Road facility, research associate Diana Craigen makes adjustments to a crystal X-ray defractor.   - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Inside deCODE’s Day Road facility, research associate Diana Craigen makes adjustments to a crystal X-ray defractor.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

deCODE quietly lays the groundwork for the medicines of the future.

Far from the nearest hamburger, in the shady recesses of Day Road, E. coli has found a foothold.

A threat to humans in the right circumstances, the bacteria’s presence in this case is not only sanctioned – it’s encouraged.

In fact, one might say that scientists at deCODE biostructures are the aggressors, and E. coli is but a puny pawn.

“Nowadays we hijack the DNA matter of bacteria,” said Hidong Kim, chief scientific officer at deCODE biostructures, as he surveys the hulking machine on Day Road West that’s poised to do the latest round of hijacking.

The work is more honorable than it sounds. The goal of those at deCODE is to lay the groundwork for medicines they hope will one day be used to heal human ailments.

“From cancer to heart disease to Alzheimer’s,” said deCODE President Lance Stewart. “You name it, we’ve worked on it.”

Stewart, Kim and their colleagues don’t create drugs; rather, they use structural biology and chemistry to study the makeup of diseases and help build the templates that other scientists will use to develop remedies.

Though the business can be lucrative, the entire drug development process, from beginning to end, can take as long as a decade, Stewart said. The cost to bring a new drug to market has been estimated as high as $800 million.

“It’s a daunting challenge,” Stewart said. “The failure rate is extraordinarily high and funding is just flat out challenging.”

Despite the odds, the work is rewarding, Stewart said. And although research is costly, there is money available.

Last month, deCODE signed a five-year, $13.5 million subcontract with the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute – itself the recent recipients of a $30.6 million federal grant – to help establish a Seattle Structural Genomics Center for Infectious Disease.

deCODE and SBRI, along with the University of Washington and Battelle Northwest, in Richland, will together try to solve 75 to 100 protein structures per year, with the results to be published worldwide and shared with other scientists.

Proteins are an important component of drug research because they are central to cellular activity.

By better understanding the proteins in, say, a deadly bacteria, scientists are better positioned to develop a substance that will inhibit its growth.

In the past, Kim said, protein expression in labs often required substantial amounts of animal or plant tissue.

“When I was in college, you might need 100 cow eyeballs,” he said.

Now, only a few cells are needed to study the structure of protein at a near atomic level.

To that end, some 50 employees now toil in deCODE biostructures’ warehouse off Day Road, surrounded by various industrial outfits.

It’s a long way to Iceland, home of parent company deCODE Genetics, which has been studying the genetics in that country since 1996. But deCODE Biostructures has come a long way from its original incarnation, Stewart said.

Subletting a small space in which to conduct their research, Stewart and Kim founded the company in 1997 as Emerald Biostructures.

The startup took root on Bainbridge, Stewart said, simply because he “wanted to move here” from Seattle.

Emerald Bio­structures soon was acquired by Medichem, an Illi­nois-based chemistry company, before eventually becoming a subsidiary of deCODE.

“New companies in the field are few and far between,” Stewart said. “And success isn’t guaranteed even to the ones that have been around for awhile.”

In fact, Stewart and Kim haven’t yet worked an approved drug.

Still, Stewart says the effort is worth it.

“It’s certainly an exciting field for those who like to delve into risky business,” he said.

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