Could curing some of the world's biggest health problems be the most promising focus for the region's economy in the years ahead?

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Could curing some of the world’s biggest health problems be the most promising focus for the region’s economy in the years ahead?

That might be hard to imagine for a business community now facing the worst financial crisis since the Depression.

Yet years in the future, people could measure the return on investment not just in dollars but in improvement to the human condition, speakers told an audience of about 250 people gathered for an annual conference of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce.

“People tend to associate Seattle with coffee,” said Peter Small, senior program officer for tuberculosis at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “I actually cherish the very real possibility that in the future Seattle’s primary association will be developing tools that have freed the world from a major killer.”

The Puget Sound region has seen an explosion of interest and expertise in global health, with dozens of organizations working on entrenched problems such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Among the largest are PATH, with 250 local employees and a $200 million budget, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which gives away $2 billion a year and plans to double its work force to about 1,300 by 2010.

How to build the region’s expertise and link it to strong education and business innovation was a key question of the chamber’s three-day regional leadership conference, held at the Suncadia resort in Cle Elum, Kittitas County.

Local leaders are seizing on global health as the latest field with bright economic prospects. A few years ago, some painted similar rosy scenarios for the growth of biotechnology, but the results are mixed. That industry employs about 7,600 people in Seattle, according to the city’s Office of Economic Development. On Wednesday, Merck said it will close its Rosetta research site in Seattle next year and eliminate or transfer about 240 jobs.

At Thursday’s conference, Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin brought up the deteriorating condition of health care in the U.S., asking how global health efforts could be integrated with our own public-health issues.

Ken Stuart, co-founder and president of the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, said cost-effective solutions are emerging from resource-poor developing countries that could be applied in the U.S.

In global health, the lines between traditional for-profit and nonprofit sectors are blurred, said PATH Chief Executive Chris Elias. He and others called on businesses to supply creative solutions, new products, logistics and management expertise to the region’s global-health nonprofits.

“We need what you need. Things that make business successful are remarkably similar to what makes a large nonprofit like PATH succeed,” he said.

The field is attracting intense interest among universities. The University of Washington has 200 graduate students in its new Department of Global Health, and Washington State University has a new School for Global Animal Health, focusing on infections that spread to humans through animal hosts, such as SARS, West Nile virus and Avian influenza.

“In my career in higher education, there’s only two things I’ve seen generate the kind of energy we’re seeing now — the first was environmental sustainability, and second is global health,” said UW President Mark Emmert.

“Global health is exciting people from an economic-development point of view, from an academic point of view, from a social-justice point of view,” Emmert said. “That seems to fit our community beautifully.”

Finding global health solutions can help prevent tens of millions of deaths every year from diseases that are totally treatable and preventable in the rich world.

Global health programs are a matter of national security, said Sen. Patty Murray. “Lack of clean water and the spread of diseases have devastating economic consequences, and they are a factor that contributes to regional tension and even war,” she said.

“When societies in a global world stumble, their problems become our problems,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell. She said that while the National Institutes of Health budget is likely to remain flat, she will look to the Defense Department budget for global health research.

Diseases themselves know no borders.

The term foreign aid isn’t very popular, Murray said, but when people consider “the possibility of someone in a foreign country getting a pandemic and flying here, they are much more interested,” she said.

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com