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Originally published Sunday, September 11, 2011 at 9:00 PM

Biotech firm prepares for real-life killer bugs

As the star-studded disaster film "Contagion" opened in Seattle theaters, researchers at AVI BioPharma in Bothell say they are testing technology that could stop real-life viruses from wreaking large-scale havoc.

Seattle Times health reporter

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When a virus is bad enough to take out major movie stars and gazillions of lesser mortals — all of whom die horrible, foamy-mouthed deaths in "Contagion," the star-studded disaster film that opened over the weekend — it makes you want to scrub your hands with bleach.

And wish fervently for fast work by a Bothell company that says it's got the key to making drugs in days to stop such deadly viruses in their tracks.

While the rest of us may be scared witless by the film, the Bothell staff members of AVI BioPharma gobbled it up Friday night along with beers and burgers at a private showing arranged by company CEO and President Chris Garabedian.

To them, the content was familiar turf, with realistic scientific details ensured by the film's high-level consultants.

"This is so relevant to what we're working on every day. It's not sensationalized — it's a real-world situation," said Garabedian, who thought the movie might inspire his employees, showing them how their hard work might apply in the event of an actual contagion.

Last year, the company got a big vote of confidence from the Department of Defense in the form of a $291 million-dollar grant. If the Defense Department and AVI have their way, pandemic killer virus movies like "Contagion" will eventually seem quaint.

AVI's first big break came in 2004, in a scary situation that sounds like it could have been its own movie plot. At a high-security facility at Fort Detrick, Md., a researcher accidentally stuck herself with a needle containing Ebola virus — an often-fatal hemorrhagic fever — while injecting mice, according to an account in The New Yorker earlier this year.

An AVI scientist who was enlisted to help quickly designed a compound, and chemists worked around the clock to create it. The drug used a mechanism known as "antisense," which uses a mirror image of the viral gene sequence — the "sense" strand — to interlock with it like a zipper, stopping it from replicating.

Five days later, the anti-Ebola drug was ready. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave provisional emergency approval for its use, and the president of AVI flew to Maryland with vials.

In the end, the researcher didn't contract Ebola and didn't need the drug. But the military liked what it had seen. In a series of challenges thrown at it by the Defense Department, the company showed it could identify the "hot zones" of bacterial or viral gene sequences, and, using its interlocking technique, quickly design and manufacture a drug to stop the pathogen.

In formal Defense exercises, AVI produced drugs for H1N1 (swine) flu in seven days; for Dengue fever in 11; and for two unknown pathogens — one viral and one bacterial — in 18 days.

"They keep upping the ante," Garabedian said.

AVI, the Defense Department wrote last summer, has a platform that's "rapidly adaptable to address new viral strains, and is the only comparable therapeutic that is at this late stage of development."

The various drugs the company has come up with have been tested on animals at Fort Detrick. Guinea pigs and primates given 1,000 times a lethal dose of Ebola and Marburg viruses died within 10 days, but most of those treated with the AVI drug survived.

The Ebola and Marburg drugs are now being safety-tested in healthy humans. So far, the drugs appear to be safe, Garabedian says.

Greg Wade, who follows biotech companies as a managing director at Wedbush Securities in San Francisco, says, "the technology is theoretically capable of being used to develop a treatment quickly" to thwart a serious biological threat.

Yet the lack of any actual finished, FDA-approved drug has put the Bothell company's stock on a steady slide since early this year.

The big unknown: None of AVI's drugs has been tested on any humans with any of these diseases. Many other drugs, notes David Miller, president and CEO of Biotech Stock Research in Seattle, have cured lab animals without helping humans, who are more complicated.

AVI's Garabedian is upbeat, saying the company's patented approach is superior to other similar techniques.

But, after they saw the movie Friday, he and the AVI employees soberly noted the chaos that ensued when supplies of vaccine were in short supply. "It brought home the reality," he said.

Sure, his company could quickly produce hundreds, or even thousands of doses of a drug, he said. Tens of millions of doses? Not so easy.

But hey, it's only a scary movie.

For now.

Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or costrom@seattletimes.com

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