Popular business and technology news site Xconomy held its eighth annual life sciences forum on April 8, 2015 at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass. This year’s theme was “What’s Hot in Boston Biotech” and drew a who’s who of industry leaders, scientists, and entrepreneurs. The sold-out event packed the 250-seat auditorium of the Broad Institute and drew a dynamic crowd from all segments of the life sciences industry.
So, the burning question… what is hot in Boston biotech?
Adam Koppel, Senior VP and Chief Strategy Officer at Biogen, discussed exciting new treatments that are in the pipeline for some of the most challenging neurodegenerative disorders. Highly anticipated medications include aducanumab for Alzheimer’s disease, anti-LINGO for multiple sclerosis, and ISIS-SMN for spinal muscular atrophy. Aducanumab has gotten a lot of attention in the news recently as a result of the positive results of a clinical trial showing a dose and time-dependent reduction in amyloid plaque.
Another company working on therapies for Alzheimer’s (and other neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and ALS) is Yumanity. Tony Coles, CEO, and Susan Lindquist, Scientific Founder, discussed Yumanity’s use of yeast as a neuronal model that could tackle the protein folding problems at the root of many neurodegenerative diseases.
James Collins, Professor of Medical Engineering and Science at MIT, and Amir Nashat, Managing Partner at Polaris Partners, discussed new opportunities in synthetic biology. Notable innovations include the development of therapeutics and diagnostics that can be affordably embedded in paper, cloth, or made into pellet form, as well as the synthetic engineering of microbes to fight diseases. The speakers also discussed the importance of ethical considerations and the need for safeguards as this area of science advances.
Chuck Wilson, CEO and President of Unum Therapeutics, and Ben Auspitz, Partner at Fidelity Biosciences, discussed a bold new avenue for cancer treatment that involves re-engineering a patient’s own T-cells with antibodies that respond specifically to their cancers. Currently, the therapy has been successfully used in the treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, but it holds great potential in treating other cancers – and also for possibly developing a cancer vaccine.
Another exciting area of research in biotech is in the development of therapies that aim to modulate the microbiome to treat disease. Bernat Olle, Principal of PureTech Ventures, and Marian Nakada, VP of Venture Investments at JNJ Innovation, spoke about a joint venture – Vedanta Biosciences – focusing on microbiome treatments for autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.
In a fantastic panel on the potential and pitfalls of gene therapy, led by moderator Michelle Dipp, Co-founder and CEO of Ovascience, panel members discussed the fact that gene therapy is still in its nascency. Many underestimate the time that it will take to develop effective therapies. Panel members included: Steven Paul, President and CEO of Voyager Therapeutics; Olivier Danos, SVP of Gene Therapy at Biogen; and Peter Kolchinsky, Managing Member and Portfolio Manager at RA Capital Management. Other challenges are in developing better gene vectors and anticipating how the broad adoption of genetic carrier testing in the future may affect the development of gene therapies.
Samantha Singer, COO of the Broad Institute, moderated an interesting panel on precision medicine, with speakers David Altschuler, Executive VP of Global Research and CSO of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, and Alexis Borisy, Chairman of Foundation Medicine and Partner at Third Rock Ventures. Altschuler said that the advantage of precision medicine is that it will enable companies to target therapies more specifically and to “fail less often.” Efficiency, pace, and the success of drug development are likely to be enhanced as a result of better knowledge of the genetic basis of disease.
Noubar Afeyan, Managing Partner and CEO of Flagship Venture, gave an entertaining talk about the challenges and opportunities of the biotech industry in Boston and Cambridge. He shared that he felt this was an unprecedented environment for biotech, in large part due to the co-existence and collaboration of large biotechs and pharmas along with smaller, entrepreneurial companies that engaged in more radical innovation.
He went on to discuss that he felt that scalability was the biggest challenge for Boston biotechs, in terms of resources, people, the process, and other externalities (such as space, the regulatory environment, and the development of partnerships). This is where much of the focus should be in the industry in order to encourage further growth.
Kirti A. Patel, MD, MHL, is a physician, writer, speaker and advisor. She has a background in scientific research, 14 years of clinical experience, holds a Master's degree in healthcare leadership from Brown University, and is an advisor for an early-stage women's health startup, Confi. Dr. Patel avidly follows scientific and technology innovations, new ventures, and startups in healthcare. She is also a passionate advocate for women's health and leadership. To hear her thoughts on these topics and more, visit kirtipatel.com or follow her on Twitter, @kirtipatelmd.
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