Former biology major Steve Reed ’73 went from selling Walla Walla fruit in Montana to running a non-profit biotech organization devoted to eliminating some of the world’s deadliest diseases.
By Edward Weinman
After Steve Reed ’73 earned his Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology from the University of Montana, the Brazilian government hired him to combat malaria in the Amazonian jungle.
“There was an opening because the person who had the job before me died of malaria,” Reed said.
It might seem dangerous to take a job that literally killed your predecessor, but Reed took the risks in stride. And for an immunologist trying to rid the developing world of such diseases as tuberculosis, malaria, chagas disease and leishmaniasis, Reed can’t afford to safely tuck himself away in an office. He needs to spend time in the trenches, which is why he frequently travels to India, one of the epicenters for infectious diseases like drug-resistant TB.
“It’s a matter of risk management. You can’t live in a bubble.”
STEVE REED '73
Reed is the founder of the Infectious Disease Research Institute, a nonprofit global health R&D center creating new diagnostics, drugs and vaccines to solve intractable global health problems.
One of IDRI’s goals is to eradicate disease in the developing world, which Reed said is important because “the developing world can act as an incubator for drug-resistant strains that can spread around the globe.”
Reed became interested in immunology at Whitman where as a biology student he first learned about parasites and the diseases haunting developing countries.
While Whitman’s rigorous academic program helped develop Reed’s scientific acumen, the college also nurtured the entrepreneurial skills Reed depends upon to run IDRI, which, to remain viable, must raise money to fund life-saving research.
“Whitman taught me to be a businessman. I had to have a bunch of entrepreneurial jobs to pay my way through college. Like hauling fruit from Walla Walla and Yakima to sell it in Montana.”
Why sell fruit in Montana?
“I went to the closest place that didn’t have fruit growing locally. I could have gone to Seattle, but that had too much competition, so I went to Montana.”
— Steve Reed ’73
Though Reed didn’t set up his fruit-selling business in Seattle, in 1993 he founded IDRI there. IDRI is currently in the process of enhancing its visibility by moving its 100-plus employees into a modern building located in the upscale South Lake Union district. The move will put IDRI within walking distance of its biggest funders and collaborators, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. The change of scenery should position Reed’s nonprofit to better fight the problems of infectious disease.
One problem disease IDRI focuses on is TB. Recently, the World Health Organization declared TB to be a global emergency. It is estimated that one-third of the world’s population is infected with the TB bacterium, and 16.2 million people currently have TB.
A century ago, TB was the leading cause of death in the U.S. The development of antibiotics diminished the threat of the disease. Unfortunately, bacteria mutate and find a way to thrive. Today, antibiotic-resistant TB is as scary as such science fiction films like “Outbreak” and “Contagion,” where infectious diseases threaten to destroy entire cities.
“It’s one of the scariest things by far,” Reed said. “Drug resistant bacteria – there’s no way to defend against them. No vaccines and no good drugs.”
In part, the rise of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria was caused by the injudicious use of antibiotics, not only in human beings, but also the antibiotics administered to healthy farm animals to prevent them from getting sick. These antibiotics then show up in the meat we eat.
According to Reed, the antibiotics present in our food are a core cause of drug-resistant bacteria.
“In what other situation would you massively treat an animal or human that is not sick? Antibiotics have only been around for 60 years or so. They were a miracle, but they’ve been abused and we are in danger of losing them. We can never make them as fast as organisms can change,” Reed said.
Organisms rapidly adapt in a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest model in order to stay alive. This is why IDRI is trying to develop vaccines that prevent disease rather than relying on pills to treat a disease.
“It’s fairly intuitive to seek prevention rather than a cure. It’s a proactive versus reactive approach,” Reed said.
With a $25-million annual budget, a list of donors that includes the Gates Foundation and tireless scientific research, IDRI has developed a TB vaccine that has finally made it into a clinical trial.
“The IDRI team has developed an advanced-stage TB vaccine, now licensed to pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline,” Reed said.
“These are exciting times.”
Because of the TB vaccine’s promise, Vaccine Nation ranked Reed as the 13th most influential people in vaccines.
Despite potentially delivering a TB vaccine to market, Reed said IDRI’s biggest success thus far is an inexpensive diagnostic test for parasitic diseases that avoids invasive testing procedures, “like sticking a needle in your bone marrow.”
“Our tests are rapid and only rely on a drop of blood,” Reed said.
One reason for IDRI’s success is that Reed set it up as a nonprofit, so he has the freedom to conduct scientific research without having to be responsive to investors motivated by short-term profit.
Eradicating disease is a “long-term commitment. If done for profit, then the goal is to make money and sell the company, not to work on products such as vaccines and diagnostic tests that may yield profit only as measured by impact on health rather than money.”
Because of Reed’s social ethics, his goal is not to maximize profit but to eradicate disease in the developing world, a vital target because a healthier population is a more stable population.
“As populations become healthier, there is an accompanying stabilization of growth, meaning families have fewer kids. This stabilization is important as we contemplate a world nearing seven billion people.”