Keep medical innovation on track in Washington state

Washington hosts some of the nation's most cutting-edge medical research. Seattle Genetics recently partnered with Bristol-Myers Squibb to test new therapies against Hodgkin's lymphoma. And nearby Juno Therapeutics is developing a new treatment that genetically engineers a patient's immune system to fight off cancer cells.

But this type of innovative research could come to a halt if lawmakers don't scrap some misguided proposals coming out of our nation's capital. Failure to protect the Evergreen State's life science sector would deprive residents of critical cures and economic opportunities.

Juno Therapeutics, a spinoff from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, is making progress against cancers like leukemia and lymphoma. The firm's drugs can reprogram a patient's own cells to kill tumors. The new treatments are hugely promising -- clinical trials for Juno's immunotherapy drugs have produced an average remission rate of 91 percent.

People living with HIV, including 12,000 Washingtonians, have also benefited from life science advances. In the 1980s, HIV-positive patients faced an almost certain early death from complications due to AIDS. The only treatments available treated opportunistic infections, and even then the drugs were not always effective.

Today, thanks to advances in virology and drug development, HIV-positive people take a daily combination of medications, often in one pill. We are preventing deadly opportunistic infections that were once a common scourge and almost certain death. HIV patients can now expect to live at least 50 additional years after diagnosis. This means that average life expectancy for a patient on drug therapy is nearly equal to those in the general population.

These therapies are also critical to patients around the world. The United States supplies more than 50 percent of HIV drugs in the developing world through government, nonprofit and pharmaceutical manufacturer programs, reducing the cost of life-sustaining therapy to 40 cents a day.

Advances in the treatment of hepatitis C are a direct result of innovation and development. Washington is home to more than 69,000 people living with chronic hepatitis C. New therapies are effective in more than 90 percent of patients, providing a cure to the leading cause of liver cancer in the U.S. and offering a better, longer life for patients.

Lifesaving medical advances also invigorate local economies. In Washington alone, the biopharmaceutical industry has generated more than $430 million in economic activity from over 1,700 relationships with local service and supply providers. Overall, the life science sector supports nearly $9 billion in state annual economic output.

While Washingtonians should be proud off their vibrant life sciences industry, they also must remain vigilant against threats from our nation's capital that could derail this extraordinary progress.

For example, some lawmakers want to weaken patent protections by making it more difficult to sue violators. Loosening patent laws would undercut medical innovation.

A Tufts study found that drug developers spend nearly $2.6 billion to bring the average new therapy to market. If copycat firms can more easily steal medicine formulas, biotech firms will have less incentive to make such huge investments, which includes creating jobs for a skilled labor force in this state.

There have also been calls from some in Congress and the White House to force drug developers to pay rebates on medicines sold through Medicare Part D, the federal prescription drug program.

These rebates would have devastating effects on drug development and would do little or nothing to improve the availability and cost of prescription drugs for Medicare patients. Instead, they would suck away the intellectual and financial capital that would otherwise finance research and development of new therapies. The rate of drug innovation would drop and damage Washington's economy.

To keep our state's lifesaving drug sector humming, lawmakers must reject misguided policy changes that undermine drug research and harm the health and economy of Washingtonians.

BJ Cavnor of Seattle is executive director of One in Four Chronic Health.