BIO International Convention 2013 – Day 1

The 20th annual BIO International Convention, held April 22-25 at McCormick Place in Chicago

The 20th annual BIO International Convention, held April 22-25 at McCormick Place in Chicago

This week I’m attending the 20th BIO International Convention, an annual gathering of biotech industry leaders. This year’s convention is being held at McCormick Place in Chicago, with thousands of participants from pharmaceutical companies, insurance providers, technology firms, university researchers and at least one academic medical center science blogger. I’ll be posting daily updates from the various panels and breakout sessions all week, so check back later for more.

Delivering on the Promise: The Future of Personalized Medicine and Diagnostics

This morning kicked off with a session led by Stafford O’Kelly, chairman of Personalized Medicine Coalition, on the promise of personalized medicine enabled by matching medications to patients’ genetic profiles. I’ve covered this topic before with a look at Peter O’Donnell’s 1200 Patients Project, and it was clearly a hot topic for convention attendees. The session, which is part of a larger track on personalized medicine and diagnostics, was standing room-only. O’Kelly said that the pharmaceutical industry has to face the reality of “one size fits all, trial and error medicine” that produces medications designed for the common denominator in patients instead of tailoring them to the individual.

O’Kelly said that doctors have always used personal characteristics of their patients to prescribe the best medications, but the amount of data available to researchers and pharmaceutical manufacturers now make it possible to adapt the old approach to produce drugs that are much more efficient. Genetic profiling can improve therapies in a number of ways, from helping select the best medications to reducing adverse reactions and costs. The challenge, O’Kelly said, will be changing regulatory processes and reimbursement models to accommodate “multiplex testing” that can screen patients for many biomarkers at once and identify the most effective course of treatment immediately.

How Do We Determine and Pay for Value? Does the Patient Have a Voice?

The second session I attended built off of this theme of encouraging pharmaceutical innovation. Robert Beall, president and CEO of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Lewis Sandy, VP of clinical advancement at UnitedHealth Group and Richard Pops, CEO of pharmaceutical company Alkermes, spoke about how to encourage development of novel medications in today’s environment of shrinking research funding and pressure to reduce health care costs.

Pops cited changes in priorities for pharmaceutical research, saying that much of the intellectual firepower has been redirected to rare and orphaned diseases where no treatments exist, rather than focusing on more widespread patient needs such as type 2 diabetes.

“We are not getting value for money,” said Sandy. “The thing that keeps me up at night is that we want to get greater value for spending, but how do we continue to get greater innovation?” Much of the conversation continued in this same vein, with the three discussing how pharmaceutical companies, academic researchers and advocacy groups can work together to invest in the kind of groundbreaking research that will make a real difference in quality of life for patients, while at the same time balancing costs against new pressures on health care spending. Sandy compared it to playing “small ball” in baseball, where a team accumulates runs one by one through base hits instead of waiting for a three-run homer to make a big breakthrough.

Today's most important discovery: The French booth in the exhibition hall has free espresso.

Today’s most important discovery: The French booth in the exhibition hall has free espresso.

Funding Models for Transformational Research

For the first session of the afternoon, researchers and venture capitalists gathered to talk about how we can move basic research breakthroughs from the bench to bedside more quickly with innovative new funding models to create biotech startup companies, much like the work done though the UChicago Center for Technology Development and Ventures and Institute for Translational Medicine. Milan Mrksich, professor of chemistry at Northwestern University and former University of Chicago professor, spoke about his approach to hiring research specialists who work within the lab to develop prototypes for potential commercial applications. This allows researchers to leverage the existing equipment, technology and expertise at an institution without having to raise startup capital from outside investors.

Edward Lanphier, CEO of Sangamo BioSciences, spoke of a similar approach to leverage existing technology platforms that can be reapplied to a number of fields to help defray initial research costs. Such platforms can be used to generate small amounts of revenue by allowing companies to sell services such as diagnostics, software development and instrumentation that can then lead to larger partnerships with academic centers and advocacy groups.

Big Problems Need Big Solutions – Fixing the Health Care System Using Big Data

With all the talk about big data here lately, I couldn’t very well miss this panel on the various ways pharmaceutical companies and insurance providers are using big data. Barbara Tardiff, head of clinical innovation at Pfizer, and Brian Sweet, director of payer and real world evidence at AstraZeneca, both spoke about how their companies are incorporating data from real world outcomes along with scientific research data generated during drug development. Tardiff said they can use this kind of data to develop predictive models of drug safety and efficacy, and to direct resources where they’re most needed. Sweet put this approach into perspective, saying, “It’s not about big data, or how much you can get, but quality data.”

Andrea Marks, chief informatics executive at Blue Health Intelligence, a company that provides claims data analytics for big health insurers, had a different perspective. She spoke about using advanced analytics to mine longitudinal data from claims to assess comparative effectiveness of treatments, drugs and even health care providers. She cited the example of using analytics to help payers identify the best performing centers for various procedures, data that the payers could then use to steer patients toward the best care and provide feedback to help providers improve their services.

That’s it for Day 1. Check back tomorrow for more updates from the convention, including a session with Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn.

More BIO International 2013 coverage from Science Life:

About Matt Wood (514 Articles)

Matt Wood is a senior science writer at the University of Chicago Medicine and nonfiction editor for Another Chicago Magazine.

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