Bird Flu Alarm

2006-02-20-Biotechs pump big money into flu research

Understanding Avian Influenza

2006-02-20-Biotechs pump big money into flu research

Technology firms are investing more in an area of biotech research they hope will blunt a growing public health worry: the threat of an avian flu pandemic.

The H5N1 bird flu strain has devastated poultry flocks in 19 nations in Asia and Eastern Europe. At least 165 humans have been infected, and 88 have died. Scientists are concerned the strain could start spreading from person to person, sparking a deadly pandemic.

Two announcements Thursday underline the tech industry's rising interest in the field:

? IBM and the Scripps Research Institute said they are combining forces to research infectious diseases such as bird flu that could spread worldwide. The venture marries IBM's growing life-sciences division, including its Blue Gene supercomputer, with Scripps' new biotech research park in Boca Raton, Fla.

Scripps Florida, launched two years ago with a big push from Gov. Jeb Bush, hopes to create drugs and vaccines from reams of laboratory data spun out of Scripps' main campus in Southern California's La Jolla. It needs IBM's supercomputer to grind through the data quickly, Scripps spokesman Keith McKeown said.

Bush hopes Scripps, now with 160 employees and plans for hundreds more, will supercharge Florida's economy. The flu vaccine work "is exactly the type of advanced research and talent we want," he said Thursday in a statement.

? Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a leading venture-capital investor in former tech start-ups such as Google, unveiled a $200 million Pandemic and Bio Defense Fund. It will invest over the next three years in start-ups creating vaccines and drugs that could slow a flu pandemic's spread.

The Silicon Valley firm also disclosed the fund's first investment: $15 million in BioCryst Pharmaceuticals in Birmingham, Ala. It is developing Peramivir, an anti-viral drug that could be used to battle avian flu.

Peramivir is not ready for consumers yet, however. An oral version produced disappointing results in 2002, BioCryst says. The company is now testing an injectable form in tests involving animals.

Kleiner Perkins' new fund comes as venture-capital firms are focusing more on biotech and other medical businesses as a source of future profit. VCs poured 18% of their start-up money into biotech last year, up from 4% five years ago.

Kleiner Perkins began building a biotech practice in 1977, five years after the firm was founded. It has backed more than 100 biotech companies, including Genentech in South San Francisco, now one of the giants in cancer treatment.

Understanding Avian Influenza