Opportunities Abound: Stakeholders Gather at Annual Meeting to Discuss the Future of Biotechnology

June 16, 2014

By Meaghan Casey

The importance of forging partnerships and harnessing the power of policy makers to advance the life sciences was a focal point of the 2014 MassBio Annual Meeting, held April 3-4 at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Cambridge.

“In my 30 years, I can’t recall a more exciting time,” said Biogen Idec CEO George Scangos. “What were theories a decade ago are becoming realities. We’ve never had so much opportunity to do so much good for so many people. But, we’re also in an era where the science is getting ahead of the regulatory process. Maintenance of this ecosystem is essential.”

Scangos was presented with the Henri A. Termeer Innovative Leadership Award, named for the retired Genzyme president. He is the sixth industry executive to receive the annual award, which recognizes a leader who actively supports community-based organizations, has a strong presence and commitment to growth in Massachusetts and contributes to science education to prepare the future workforce.

“Henri Termeer exemplifies courage and determination and this award is a constant reminder to never stop trying to do what’s right and what’s best,” said Scangos.

Also at the event’s award luncheon, the Gov. Deval L. Patrick administration—represented by Dr. Susan Windham-Bannister, President of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center—was presented with the MassBio Leading Impact Award. The award honors individuals and organizations that have successfully worked to improve the competitiveness of Massachusetts as a destination for the life sciences industry.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg—one of the event’s three keynote speakers—highlighted what the agency is doing to facilitate and expedite development and review of new drugs. She said more than three-quarters of products approved last year were approved in the U.S. first. This has been a result of programs such as breakthrough therapy designation, fast track designation, accelerated approval and priority review.

By reaching out to biotech and pharmaceutical companies early on and working with them throughout the development process, Hamburg said the time needed to develop new products has decreased by as much as five years for some companies.

“It underscores that engagement and collaboration can really make a difference,” said Hamburg. “Our goal is to enable a rapid and reliable review process and deliver on the promise of science. It matters to you, it matters to us and, most of all, it matters to the patients.”

In her introduction of Hamburg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren described her as “a person of great vision.” Warren said she and other law makers are urging Congress to double funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and do more to cultivate innovation and government-supported research.

“We have the opportunity to support a new generation of scientists and build economic development here in Massachusetts and across the country,” said Warren.

The keynote speakers in addition to Hamburg were Brad Margus, CEO of Genome Bridge, and Dr. Flemming Ornskov, CEO of Shire. Both brought the focus back to the patients.

Margus transitioned from running a shrimp processing company to becoming a self-taught genetics expert when two of his two sons were diagnosed in 1993 with ataxia-telangiectasia. Better known as "A-T," it is an extremely rare genetic disease that combines a loss of muscle control with cancer and immune deficiency.

“My response was to learn the science, how it’s funded and how to raise funds,” Margus said. He created a nonprofit patient advocacy group called the A-T Children's Project, launched Perlegen Sciences Inc., co-founded Envoy Therapeutics Inc. and now heads Genome Bridge, a non-profit organization working with partners to build an unparalleled technology for aggregating genomic and clinical data to improve medicine. Though there is still no protein identified with A-T to target with a drug, he continues to watch treatments developed for other diseases.

“I want to explore every new technology,” said Margus. “I’ve had some of the most fertile and interesting discussions right here in Massachusetts. My hope is that we can learn from the genome and affect science.”

Ornskov, who started out in a neonatal unit and has extensive experience in the pharmaceutical sector, is optimistic about the future of the industry. “We’ve come a very long way since my days as a physician,” he said. “A lot of the ‘We don’t know’ has turned into ‘We have an option for your child.’ Whatever we do, we want to make the treatment of patients simpler.”

During the event, MassBio also unveiled its strategic report, Impact 2020. A panel of experts discussed the report and its recommendations, stressing a need for the industry to center on the patient, demonstrate the value of innovation, maximize access to capital, cultivate anchor companies and capitalize on information technology.

“We’re at this moment when the world is wrestling with the issue of how we’re going to afford to produce the drugs for our aging populations,” said Civitas Therapeutics Founder Glenn Batchelder, who was elected the new MassBio Chairman at the meeting. “How do our innovations and breakthroughs translate into viable treatments that are accessible to all?”

“The issues we’re seeing are global issues,” said Skip Irving, partner and managing director of Health Advances. “Healthcare costs and funding innovation are challenges we all face. To solve some of these issues moving forward, we need the leaders of our biggest companies engaged in dialogue.”

The Annual Meeting also featured breakout sessions on innovative ways to fund early-stage companies; clinical trial trends; mobile technology and 3D printing; converging relationships among biotech, pharma, investors and academia; the image problem of the industry; the second coming of molecular therapies; and new approaches to treatments for neurological disease, among others.

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