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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

John Roll. Ph.D.: Biomedical research is supporting the economy of the future

By John Roll. Ph.D. WSU Health Sciences Spokane

When the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced this summer it would invest $17 million in 10 new research centers to help prevent future pandemics, Washington State University and the University of Washington were tapped to lead two of them.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, NIAID director, said the centers will investigate how and where viruses and other pathogens emerge from wildlife and spill over to cause disease in people, enabling the early warning that is critical to a rapid response.

It’s worth repeating: Out of 10 new multidisciplinary, global research centers, Washington institutions lead two.

That speaks to the quality of the biomedical research enterprise we’ve built at the state’s two largest universities and to Washington’s reputation as a center of excellence in life sciences and global health. In 2017, life sciences accounted for $22.7 billion in economic activity in the state, according to industry group Life Science Washington. It took many decades to build this infrastructure; we can’t lose momentum now.

We all know that legislators have painful choices ahead as the state confronts a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall due to the pandemic. Still, academic research is a cornerstone of an innovation economy, which will be critical to our recovery from the pandemic recession. We can look to recent history for evidence: From 2001 to 2011, life sciences job creation greatly outpaced private sector job growth in the state, according to a 2019 economic impact report from Life Science Washington.

A recent example of the power of such research is Athira Pharma, a Seattle-based biotech startup founded by two WSU professors. Just days ago, in the middle of this economic downturn, the company went public, raising more than $200 million. Athira is developing a drug that holds life-changing potential for people with Alzheimer’s, ALS and Parkinson’s diseases. Based on the research of WSU neuroscientists Joe Harding and Jay Wright, the company is led by Dr. Leen Kawas, who earned her Ph.D. at WSU and is the first woman to take a company public in Washington in more than two decades.

WSU has a long and successful history of significant biomedical research. For example, discoveries made by our College of Veterinary Medicine have improved human and animal health around the globe and the college is in the top 10% among veterinary colleges in receipt of competitive federal research funding. With the growth of WSU Health Sciences, which is based in Spokane, our region is becoming a center for life sciences research. WSU Health Sciences Spokane researchers in the colleges of Pharmacy, Nursing and Medicine are helping address some of the most important issues of our time. They’re engaged in scientific discovery in the fields of sleep and performance, addictions, autism, cancer, chronic disease, community health, health policy, neuroscience, pharmacology and more.

The Spokane campus has also become an economic engine for the region. WSU Health Sciences Spokane brought in $37.6 million in external research funding in the last fiscal year, more than triple the amount garnered in 2011. Some 750 people work on the campus, either as faculty, staff or administration, and we have a record 1,727 students this fall. We expect that those numbers will only grow.

The pandemic disrupted some research at WSU, as onsite work and research with human participants was initially restricted. The university is resuming work that can be done safely. Yet many WSU scientists have quickly pivoted to address a range of causes and effects of the pandemic. Their initiatives include modeling hospital surge capacity; exploring differences in the rural and urban impacts of COVID-19; understanding the factors that make certain populations more vulnerable to COVID-19; combating misinformation; and understanding the impacts of the pandemic response, including delay or postponement of preventive health care.

All of these activities, at WSU and beyond, bring resources to the state that otherwise wouldn’t be available and support thousands of jobs. They burnish Washington’s reputation as a center of innovation and progress. More important, though, our research has the potential to improve lives, to make our communities healthier and even to help prevent future pandemics. Biomedical and life sciences research are helping build the future, today.

John Roll, PhD, is professor and vice dean for research at the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine and associate vice president for Strategic Research Initiatives at WSU Health Sciences in Spokane.

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