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Originally published May 3, 2012 at 7:05 PM | Page modified May 3, 2012 at 9:32 PM

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Novo Nordisk steps up research on diabetes

The company's South Lake Union facility will house a new center focusing on finding a cure for Type 1 diabetes.

Seattle Times business reporter

Novo Nordisk

Adding diabetes to local research effort

Employees: About 32,000 worldwide; 4,400 in U.S.

Areas of focus: Diabetes, growth hormone therapy, hormone replacement therapy and hemophilia

2011 results: $12.37 billion in sales; $3.19 billion profit

Seattle

Employees: 71, hiring 10-12 more

Areas of focus: Inflammatory diseases and Type 1 diabetes research

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So excited...we walk every year in hopes of a cure for type one diabetes. The Juvenile... MORE
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About 3 million Americans have Type 1 diabetes, which can be treated with daily shots of insulin but can't be cured. A big player in diabetes, Danish drug company Novo Nordisk, is expanding its research efforts in Seattle in hopes of making progress toward a cure.

The company already employs 71 people at the Seattle research center on inflammatory diseases it opened in 2009.

Next month it will launch a diabetes-research effort here, led by Dr. Matthias von Herrath, director of the nonprofit Center for Type 1 Diabetes Research in La Jolla, California. It's set to open June 14 in Novo Nordisk's facilities in South Lake Union.

Von Herrath said the diabetes center is hiring 10 to 12 researchers now and could double its staff next year.

Novo Nordisk has about 4,400 employees in the U.S. and plans to increase that by nearly 15 percent this year, according to a media release from the company.

Finding a cure for Type 1 diabetes is tricky for a number of reasons, von Herrath said. Also known as juvenile onset or insulin-dependent diabetes, it causes the body's immune system to mistakenly attack cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. Unlike the more widespread type 2 diabetes, which is often caused by obesity and a sedentary lifestyle, its onset has no connection with diet or physical activity.

Von Herrath said one focus of the new center will be developing a "peacekeeper" vaccine for humans. With type 1 diabetes, the beta cells that are supposed to produce insulin are attacked by a person's own immune system. The goal of a vaccine would be to regulate that immune response so the cells can function properly.

While animal treatments with such "peacekeeper" vaccines have seen success, the challenge lies in translating that to humans, where this method hasn't worked for reasons scientists don't yet understand.

Von Herrath said he wants the center to take an integrated approach, with teams working on different aspects of the research communicating throughout the process, versus a "handoff" process often taken in research.

"Usually it's separated in companies ... here we need to cross-talk and it needs to be under one leadership," he said.

Chris Rivera, president of the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association (WBBA), said he's glad to see Novo Nordisk expand in Seattle.

"Having the presence of a Novo Nordisk here validates the life-science biotech community," he said. "It validates our international expertise in diabetes and immune disease research."

Novo Nordisk bought ZymoGenetics in 1988, and ran it for more than a decade as a research and development hub.

After a partial spinoff from Novo, ZymoGenetics went public in 2002 while Novo Nordisk kept a large minority stake. Bristol-Myers Squibb purchased ZymoGenetics in 2010.

Erin Flemming: 206-464-2718 or eflemming@seattletimes.com

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