Science & Technology



Seattle brothers expand billion-dollar biotech company's focus to include COVID

Akash Pasricha, The Seattle Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

Harlan and Chad Robins started Seattle-based Adaptive Biotechnologies 12 years ago to find a cure for cancer. Now, they have broadened their mission to take on COVID-19.

Adaptive sells an ultra-detailed blood test that analyzes immune responses to different diseases. It says the technology can advance research, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer, autoimmune disorders and infectious diseases.

"Your immune system knows about every disease you have," said Harlan Robins, chief scientific officer at Adaptive. "If we could just ask the immune system what it knows, we would be able to diagnose every disease."

The company now hopes its technology can help government agencies make more informed decisions related to COVID-19. Adaptive created a specialized test that provides new data about how immune cells respond to the coronavirus.

If successful, it would mark yet another major contribution by Seattle-area researchers with roots at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in combating COVID-19. Earlier in the pandemic, the Seattle Flu Study — a partnership between University of Washington Medicine, Fred Hutch and Seattle Children's Hospital — added to its work tracking the flu by also surveilling for COVID-19. The cancer center's own Dr. Larry Corey was tapped by Dr. Anthony Fauci to help oversee government-sponsored clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines. And Fred Hutch computational biologist Trevor Bedford has long been at the forefront of mapping mutations and variants for the disease.

Adaptive would also be another successful new startup born out of the cancer research center. The company was founded in 2009 by the two brothers after Harlan made a discovery with his team at the center.


With a market capitalization of approximately $5.5 billion and a head count of 800 employees, Adaptive is the largest active company to spin out of the cancer center. It is second only to Juno Therapeutics, which was acquired in 2018 for $9 billion. With 17 startups active, Fred Hutch's leaders are confident there's more where Adaptive and Juno came from.

'Worse than looking for a needle in a haystack'

Inside the human bloodstream, special cells called "T-cells" help the immune system detect diseases. But because the body has hundreds of millions of different types of T-cells — many specific to each disease — analyzing those T-cells is challenging.

Some of the most advanced genetic sequencing tools on the market right now still "ignore" the genetic codes of T-cells because of how much variety there is, said Dr. David Koelle, a professor researching the immune system at UW Medicine.


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