Thursday, December 7, 2000


Area leaders want to tap into biotech center
Richland facility has many of the latest high-tech devices

Tom Sowa
Staff writer

Spokane _ A group of about 70 Spokane and North Idaho business leaders agreed Wednesday they need to take advantage of advanced technology waiting to be used at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland.

That equipment includes state-of-the-art devices that can pull open the tiniest corners of human cells. It also includes high-energy spectrometers that can help pinpoint human proteins and even measure their unimaginably tiny mass.

"It's only two and a half hours away
from Spokane, and we want people here to take advantage of it," said Gary Spanner, manager of economic development for the PNNL.

Spanner and three colleagues gave an overview of PNNL research to the Biotechnology Association of the Spokane Region.

The BASR holds quarterly meetings for area business leaders, elected officials and others interested in promoting biotechnology in the region. Wednesday's meeting at the WestCoast Ridpath was its fourth this year.

While most of PNNL's annual budget of $490 million goes toward federal research, an increasing share is being used to push product development in the private sector, Spanner told the group.

For biotech start-ups and medical researchers, PNNL's primary asset is the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory. It's considered one of the best-equipped labs of its kind anywhere, said Spanner.

The federal government has poured $150 million into the lab for specialized mass spectrometers, nuclear magnetic resonance microscopes, lasers and optical sensors.

Only 2 years old, the lab has become a research tool of academic researchers around the world. Much of its initial efforts are focused on major projects such as cancer research.

But the federal government also expects EMSL to become involved in commercial product development.

"That purpose is not well-known in the region. We came (to Spokane) to help get that word out," said Spanner.

Several national biotech firms have begun tests of new products through the EMSL labs, said Ron Walters, a deputy director at the facility.

Proprietary agreements prevent identification of those first corporate users, said Spanner.

The most likely users are companies needing sophisticated sensors to track molecular changes from drugs or treatments, said Walters. Another likely group of users, he said, would be agricultural companies developing new seeds or agents to improve crop productivity.

Developers of products can come to the lab in person, or they can operate the sensors entirely by use of a remote network, said Spanner.

Added Walters: "Everything is done with computers. Test tubes no longer exist."

EMSL also hopes to help spur development of biotech companies focused on proteomics -- the study of human proteins, said Walters.

Equipment now in place at EMSL has shortened genetics research time by quantum leaps: "The effort to identify a protein (in a genetic sequence) used to take days of processing," said Walters. "Now it can be done within hours."

Also speaking Wednesday was Michelle Inserra, marketing director for Virion, a Richland start-up company that used PNNL facilities for new product development.

Since its launch four years ago, Virion has completed a first round of tests for a product using chemicals to remove warts and halt their development, Inserra said.

PNNL provided initial help by installing a lab for Virion's use at the Richland Technology Park. PNNL staff also provided technical assistance as Virion developed its product, said Inserra.

•Staff writer Tom Sowa can be reached at (509) 459-5492 or by e-mail at

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