Biotech Focuses on Future of Field, Next Generation

April 12, 2012

“I have a great sense of optimism towards where this field is going, and Massachusetts will be critical player in the success stories to come,” said Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to a crowd of more than 450 attendees at MassBio’s 2012 Annual Meeting.

Held at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Cambridge on March 26-27, the two-day event opened with a keynote address delivered by Collins, during which he outlined three key investments by the NIH in innovation. Those included (1) accelerating discovery through technology, with the creation of programs such as the Cancer Genome Atlas; (2) advancing translational science through the NIH-FDA Advancing Regulatory Science Initiative; and (3) encouraging new investigators and new ideas through awards programs such as the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award and the Early Independence Award.

Dr. Eric Perakslis, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA)’s chief information officer and chief scientist in informatics, provided the event’s closing remarks. Perakslis, a late-stage kidney cancer survivor, spoke about his six months on the job and the need to find new ways to review products in a timely manner.

“There was a prostate cancer drug that we approved that doubled a patient’s projected lifespan – giving him an additional year,” said Perakslis. “By the time we approved that drug, only nine of the men in the trial were probably still alive, and that’s not good enough. Patients are waiting.”

In a panel discussion that honed in on the theme of the event – the Business of Science in Massachusetts – moderator Juan Enriquez brought up concerns about economic trends and payers’ desires to see quicker returns, as well as the industry’s shift in focus from discovery to mergers and marketing.

“The next generation of drug developers — and tools— has the potential to be incredible, but we have to move forward in a reflective, risk-sharing manner,” said Abbie Celniker, CEO of Eleven Biotherapeutics.

To cultivate that next generation, Massachusetts still has to do more to encourage a long-term talent pipeline, as was discussed in a panel on Talent, Innovation and Global Competiveness. In 2011, more of the Commonwealth’s students showed an interest in pursuing a STEM career than ever before, but that rate was still 8.7 percent below the national average.

“The first step is building a foundation in the elementary schools,” said Gunjan Aggarwal, global head of talent management and organization development and staffing at Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics. “There’s a lot that can be done in addition to what MassBioEd is doing to augment our students’ exposure to and interest in the math and science fields.”

Tim Rowe, CEO of Cambridge Innovation Center, provided insight on new trends in efficient models during another panel discussion, describing the advantages of virtual offices, shared development space and the opportunities for soliciting funding through social networking and online patient sites.

“The magic that comes from the passion of young minds with little capital has been proven in the tech world, but not so much in the biotech world,” said Rowe. “That’s about to change.”

The event also featured panel discussions on topics ranging from paying for personalized medicine to promising new technologies, approaches to tumor treatment, early commercial insights, deal-making and next generation sequencing. Other content tracks focused on cutting-edge research in therapeutic areas like Alzheimer’s, Type II diabetes and psychotic illnesses.

Throughout the meeting and during the reception, posters were on display to present data on groundbreaking discoveries and translational research that could lead to industry collaboration. Additionally, Pfizer’s Center for Therapeutic Innovation at the Center for Life Sciences in Boston was presented with the inaugural Leading Edge Award, created to recognize organizations that enhance Massachusetts as a setting that supports the advancement of the biotech and life sciences industries.

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