After a day of hearing talks about the process of scientific research in all its funding, methodological glory, it seemed like a good idea to cap off the day’s events with some gee-whiz science. One of the 17 “tracks” or topics for breakout sessions at the BIO conference is called simply “Exciting Science 2010,” which felt just about right. The panel, “Hard Science in a Soft World: Engineering in Biology for Regenerative Medicine,” delivered on its promise of excitement, offering up a glimpse at a scientific field that sounds sci-fi today but could be routine in 10 years.
Regenerative medicine is indeed what it sounds like – the process of regrowing organs, tissue, or cells inside or even outside the body. The applications for such science would be manyfold, from obvious cases of heart or liver failure to spinal cord injury, diabetes, and even cartilage-loss disorders such as arthritis. But while tricking the body into regrowing pancreatic beta cells or spinal cord neurons has been a dream of scientists for decades, the biological barriers have proved largely insurmountable thus far. As Garry Neil of Johnson & Johnson put it in his overview introduction, the field of regenerative medicine currently resides in “the trough of disillusionment” on the hype cycle of emerging technology.
But two talks offered concrete hope that the field’s fortunes are about to change. Sam Stupp, the director of the Northwestern Institute for BioNanotechnology, talked about the importance of scaffolds in delivering drugs and signals to cells in the body – sounds boring, but was far from it. For a complex goal like organ regeneration, a doctor can’t just inject growth signals or stem cells into an area and hope for the best, the treatment must be delivered on a structure of some kind. Stupp and colleagues adapted a natural system to create self-assembling cylinders that carry whatever drug or signal a scientist wishes on the outside of the structure, producing a stable, drug-rich structure. Already, Stupp’s laboratory have tested the injection of these scaffolds expressing a neuronal growth signal with stem cells into the brains of Parkinson’s mice, prolonging their life and relieving their motor symptoms.
Another interesting use of nanotechnology that draws upon natural biology came from Thomas Webster of Brown University, an engineer who deals in biological problems. Webster worked with the manufacturers of titanium implants for ways to prevent the body from rejecting the artificial materials being placed inside the body, preventing an artificial knee or hip, for instance, from being a lifelong cure. Reasoning that the smooth, unblemished surface of titanium was quite unlike the bumpy uneven surface of a natural cell, Webster created a process for sculpting “nano-scale roughness” into the surface of the implant. Lab tests showed that this new, bumpier implant was more resistant to infection and more attractive to surrounding tissue, producing a protective layer of cells rather than a rejection.
4:00 PM – Bracing Biotechnology for Climate Change
Climate change legislation, in some form, is almost inevitable in the next few years, whether it takes place on a state, national, or global level. Thus, the central question of session on the role of biotechnology in addressing climate change was simple – is climate change legislation good or bad for biotechnology companies? Given that not too many companies will admit publicly that the future is less than bright, it wasn’t surprising to see all six members of the session’s panel agree – with some caveats – that a climate change bill would be a net positive for the industry. But one might have been surprised at some of the voices offering that rosy view, including international fuel corporation BP and the agricultural/chemical company DuPont.
The six-man panel, which also included scientists from Argonne and UIC and representatives from biotech companies Novozyme and Ceres didn’t waste any time debating the existence of climate change – a relief in a debate that has grown increasingly divorced from scientific evidence. The industry representatives present all accepted that climate change – and associated legislation – was a reality that would offer short-term challenges that could lead to long-term innovation and room for financial growth. In some cases, the panel argued, the technology for reducing greenhouse gases was already available, it just needed to win over policymakers and the public.
That technology, they argued, was biofuels – the use of plants such as corn or algae to produce either a total replacement or a supplemental mixture for traditional fossil fuels. A few years ago, biofuels came under fire almost upon widespread arrival by environmentalists who argued that the production of the fuel was just as harmful in terms of greenhouse gases as the production and use of fossil fuels. The panel argued that the technology has progressed in the last few years such that those worrisome figures are no longer true, making biofuels a much cleaner option than gasoline, but conveying that information to the public and lawmakers has been a difficult road. I’m going to withhold my own opinion for now, having not read the data (for either side) myself. But it was refreshing, at the least, to find the energy and agriculture industries no longer fighting the actual existence of climate change and instead working toward ways to slow or stop it.
If a patient were sitting in the morning session of the Translational Research Forum, they might wonder what all the discussion of funding and private/public partnerships and basic science vs. applied science meant for them. For someone with an untreatable disease, the primary goal is getting a new cure, as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the slow pace of the clinical trial process is only outdone by its expense – as much as $500-800 million to test each drug or treatment before it is officially approved and brought to market.
The afternoon session, “From Invention to Bedside,” examined different means of streamlining this process so that promising scientific innovations are brought to the patients that need them more quickly. The real, human stakes are high – Julian Solway, director of the University of Chicago Clinical and Translational Science Award, spoke about the elevated rates of infant mortality and chronic disease such as heart failure and diabetes in the South Side Chicago community the Medical Center serves. How can the discoveries of the University of Chicago laboratories be brought quickly and efficiently to the neighborhoods surrounding campus?
One answer came from the other side of town: Lewis Smith, associate vice president for research at Northwestern University, who spoke about removing inefficient processes from the many, many clerical and application steps involved in clinical trials. Another option was suggested by Margaret Anderson, executive director of FasterCures, a non-profit organization that helps facilitate what she called “venture philanthropy.” Modeled by disease-specific advocacy groups such as the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation or the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, the philosophy calls for a different attitude about investigating potential cures, one that prioritizes the patient.
“The bottom line is curing disease and producing treatments,” Anderson said. “Traditional measures [such as publications and shareholder value] are not what they care about.”
Anderson said these foundations are learning that the challenges faced in getting new treatments to market are often not disease-specific, but system-wide. Through collaborations like TRAIN, the groups are looking for new ways to motivate scientists and regulators to move more efficiently in clinical research and approval, in order to receive grants from the millions of dollars the groups have raised through events such as charity walks.
“Every dollar they are putting out is a dollar they had to raise,” Anderson said. “When you are walking for every dollar, you’re going to care deeply about where every dollar gets spent.”
(RM) While Rep. Dan Lipinski’s talk at the Translational Research Forum spoke of boom times for research funding, Stephen Kent, a professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Chicago, added a healthy dose of skepticism to the proceedings in the day’s first panel. Kent pointed out that roughly 15 percent of the U.S. GDP is spent on health care, amounting to trillions of dollars, making the $32 billion wielded by the NIH appear to be the proverbial drop in a bucket.
“I think the amount of research investment is actually way too small,” Kent said. “We’re under-investing all over the place.”
Kent’s comments came as part of a panel called “From Science to Invention,” featuring speakers from the University of Illinois-Chicago, the Illinois Institute of Technology, and the pharmaceutical company Pfizer. Much of the discussion hinged on how scientists can turn a promising discovery in the lab into a patentable invention that can be brought – and sold – to the general public. In times such as these, where private biotech companies have decreased their research spending, facilitating science’s jump from campus to clinic is more important than ever.
Everyone agreed that an obvious solution was more private/public partnerships between pharmaceutical companies and research institutions. But proposing such a collaboration is one thing, and executing it is another. Kent pointed to the importance of a free exchange of information in developing new drugs; an openness that is often walled off by patents and trade secrets of private companies. Private funding for research taking place at academic centers exists, but has often run into ethical and administrative barriers. Meanwhile, an increased focus on directed research that focuses on one specific disease or problem has hurt funding for basic science – less immediately applicable research that often leads to unexpected breakthroughs. Finally, scientists must learn to better explain realistic goals to the public, said David McCormick, director of the IIT Research Institute, citing the field’s tendency to “overpromise and undercommunicate.”
(KM) The big announcement of the BIO convention’s first morning was the release of the Battelle Report, a snapshot of the state of the biotechnology industry. The report highlighted growth in the industry, reporting that 19,000 jobs were added between 2007 and 2008 despite the world’s financial struggles of the past few years.
Matt Summy, president of the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition, spoke to the benefits of the Battelle Report for use as a resource to their own organizations. Summy works in conjunction with Illinois’ state government and economic development to move state initiatives forward, and he pointed out some of the highlights of the report relevant to his efforts. For example, the data show that there is strong leadership in both large metropolitan areas in the Midwest (e.g., Chicago and Minneapolis), and in smaller areas as well (e.g., Decatur, IL and Cleveland, TN). The data also offered opportunites for convergence, such as using the supercomputing capabilities of the University of Illinois to move genomic research forward. Finally, the data showed that the midwest has opportunities for investment, for a supportive environment for entrepreneurs, and for high levels of innovation.
Vicki Loise heads the Association for University Technology Managers (AUTM), whose mission is to disseminate information for the public good. One of the main vehicles for doing this is by patenting, which Vicki stated was different from, but just as important as scientific publications. The data from the Battelle report is important for AUTM in that it helped to show the steady increases in new companies formed from university research.
Finally, Mitch Horowitz, who is the VP of the Battelle Technology Practice, spoke about the data collected in the report. Battelle primary used figures through 2008 to track trends in bioscience employment, assess the financial performance of the bioscience sector, examine state-level indicators of the recent performance of the bioscience sector, and describe trends in state policies and programs. The report first defined the bioscience sector as consisting mainly of 1) agricultural, feedstock and chemical 2) drugs and pharmaceutical 3) medical devices and equipment and 4) research, testing, and medical laboratories. Some of the reports key findings were:
– Bioscience employment growth, led by research, testing, and medical labs, outpaced national employment growth from 2001 – 2008.
– All sectors, except drugs and pharma grew between 2007 – 2008
– The total employment impact of the bioscience sector led to 8 million jobs
– The bioscience sector continues to be a source of high-wage jobs
– Bioscience employment is widely distributed with 39 states having a specialiation in at least one bioscience sector
– States continue to invest in bioscience development, despite state fiscal challenges
– Based on an analysis of 649 biosci companies (2009), each of the 4 sectors were profitable
– One key warning sign of decline was that venture capital to the bioscience companies fell 36.7% between 2008
Although Mitch emphasized the positive trends in the industry, he cautioned that the continued growth is not guaranteed, mostly because of challenges at the state level, at the level of NIH funding, with the amount of venture capital available, and with the quality of science and math education at the K-12 levels. However, he concluded that state and national policymakers have the ability to ensure that these challenges are addressed in order to allow the US to continue to be a world leader in biosciences.
10:00 AM – Making the Case for Research Funding
(RM) The slogan of the BIO convention – “Heal, Fuel, Feed the World” – describes the major global problems that biotechnology hopes to solve. But in the near term, a place where biotechnology can have a practical effect is on a less romantic, but equally concerning problem: jobs. With politicians promising to place job creation at the top of their to-do list in the coming months, it’s important to remember that a powerful indirect stimulus for lowering unemployment is the funding of research institutions such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.
Those organizations received a huge boost from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the stimulus bill, in 2009. But U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, in his remarks to kick off the Translational Research Forum Monday, emphasized that Washington remains committed to increasing those funds and investing in science as a way to create new industries and jobs. With the NSF Reauthorization Bill he has drafted, Lipinski – who himself once received an NSF grant as a chemical engineering student – said he hopes to increase funding for the agency to $11 billion by 2015, while the Obama administration has pledged to double the NIH budget in a similar timeframe.
“There’s no question that this administration and Congress have stepped forward and shown real commitment to science and technology,” Lipinski said.
But scientists and research institutions can’t waste time celebrating these spikes of funding after years of flat budgets, Lipinski said. The case must be made to the public that scientific funding is essential for new discoveries that bolster the American economy and improve quality of life, he said. Improvements in STEM education – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – must be made so that the U.S. can remain competitive with new research rivals such as China. And “research clusters,” such as the one made up of the universities and national laboratories in the Chicago area, must be nurtured and encouraged by federal funding.
“There’s no better place for scientific and medical frontiers to interact with biotechnology,” Lipinski said. “When you have talent in close proximity, that creates jobs.”
8:30 AM – Biotechnology in Chicago
(RM) Science and technology have historically been separated by an ampersand, held at arm’s length from each other. But like country & western, the distinction makes less and less sense as the two fields merge closer and closer in the 21st century. Fully grafted together as biotechnology, the partnership promises to unify what we know about the natural world and how we’ve learned to create our own world to address the world’s biggest questions: energy, health care, climate change and education.
For most of this week, the blog will feature coverage from the 2010 BIO International Convention underway at McCormick Place in Chicago. Organized by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, the meeting brings together experts from universities, government, and pharmaceutical and technology companies to discuss the impact of science upon technology and vice versa. Panels will explore the potential of biotechnology to address the 21st century’s biggest problems, and will feature speakers as luminous as Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg (George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Al Gore will also be there, but not accessible to us media). I’m pleased to be joined in coverage of the conference by Karla Melendez, associate project manager for the University of Chicago Office of Technology and Intellectual Property – look for the (RM) or (KM) to see who wrote the post. Karla and I will be updating the site all day, each day of the meeting, so keep refreshing!