Gates, Community Boost Seattle Health Groups Global health has become a booming activity in Seattle. Both its nonprofit and for-profit companies are benefiting from the largesse of the Gates Foundation. But the region's interest in global health began decades ago, fueled by, among other things, a collaborative spirit.
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Gates, Community Boost Seattle Health Groups

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Gates, Community Boost Seattle Health Groups

Gates, Community Boost Seattle Health Groups

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Six billion dollars, that's how much the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has committed so far in their Global Health Initiative. The money is for preventing and treating diseases like AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis in developing countries.

And NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports that a lot of that work is being done by corporations and non-profits in the Seattle area.

WENDY KAUFMAN: If you take a ride to the top of Seattle's Space Needle and look around, you'll begin to appreciate the breath of Seattle's local health community.

Mr. JACK FARIS (President, Washington Biotech and Medical Association): We're surrounded virtually all sides by institutions or their contributors to that mission. Right nearby is the Seattle Medical Research Institute, slightly to the south of the university…

KAUFMAN: From our vantage point more than 500 feet high, Jack Faris points at one institution after another committed to global health: SBRI, one of the world leaders in infectious disease research, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the vaccine research leader for HIV/AIDS, PATH, an innovator in health care delivery to the developing world for nearly three decades. And says Faris, the president of the Washington Biotech and Biomedical Association…

Mr. FARIS: If we had a parachute, we could virtually drop right into the construction site for the future home of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

KAUFMAN: The foundation, arguably the world's most important player in global health, is expanding rapidly and has outgrown its current facility. It expects to spend about $900 million on global health this year, nearly twice that in 2009. The number of lives saved by the foundation's efforts can already be counted in the millions.

Chris Elias, the president of PATH, one of the very first recipients of the Gates global health grant, suggests that in addition to money and talent, the foundation brings what he calls a can-do spirit for solving global health problems.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER ELIAS (President, PATH): You know, 10, 15 years ago, it was very common we do a small boutique kind of project and we'd feel very good about it. And the last line of the report would always be, you know, if we ever had enough resources and enough political will, we could scale us up and really make a difference.

KAUFMAN: And now they can. In the past six years or so, the non-profit's budget has quadrupled to nearly $170 million. Its staff has tripled in size. Increases due in large part to funding from the Gates Foundation.

But Seattle's interest in the field began long before the foundation existed. It's hard to say exactly why the global health community has flourished here. But Seattleites point to a number of factors: a strong research university, a good mix of technological innovation, a supportive political climate, and says Karen Hedine, the CEO of a company called Micronics, a strong spirit of collaboration.

Ms. KAREN HEDINE (CEO, Micronics, Inc.): You know, I think it's almost had to be that way. We haven't had historically the same type of structure that maybe they've had in the California regions or Boston area where you had a bigger infrastructure of venture funding and what not. We've all kind of relied on each other and shared with each other a lot more. I think that's really a very good advantage for us here.

KAUFMAN: Collaboration is an especially important in global health because the problems are too big for anyone to solve going it alone.

Consider, for example, the Gates funded lab-on-a-card. The effort led by the University of Washington includes Micronics, chemists from another private company, and assistance from PATH. Together, they've taken a diagnostic capability of a large lab and shrunk it down to two pieces of equipment - one the size of a shoebox, the other the size of a credit card.

Ms. HEDINE: I'm going have put a finger stick of blood - just a little needle stick into the card. Now I'm putting the card into the box. And I'm closing it. And now it's going to read that card. I don't do anything else. I'm done.

KAUFMAN: Hedine explains that the battery-operated box reads the blood processed on the card to detect specific diseases. Gone is the need for a trained health care worker to draw a syringe of blood. And instead of having to wait days for test results, they're available in minutes.

Ms. HEDINE: Is it dengue? Is it malaria? Is it rickettsia? Is it measles? And its target is to run that result in about 15 minutes from sample in, result out.

KAUFMAN: With a device like this an epidemic could be stopped quickly. It's still being tested but will likely be in commercial use in three to four years. Before the 1990s, addressing global health problems was often seen as a philanthropic endeavor. But as companies here and elsewhere are proving, you can both do good in the world and do well financially. Private firms are an integral part of the global health solution because they help leverage the money that foundations and governments provide.

Working together, they're bringing relief to millions of people around the world, but many more are still waiting.

Wendy Kaufmann, NPR News, Seattle.

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