By John Russell
April 15, 2005 | Last month’s Discovery Day, held in Boston and sponsored by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council (MBC), was part politics and part science.
Thomas M. Finneran, the MBC new president — and until last September, Speaker of the House for the Massachusetts State Legislature — presided over the meeting. Hired for his political heft and savvy, Finneran proclaimed Massachusetts the Ph.D. capital of the world (which elicited some playful exceptions before the day was out). He took a slight jab at Harvard University President Larry Summers for his comments on women in science, and gleefully acknowledged the real drivers of the Discovery Day agenda were MBC board members Abbie Celniker, a senior VP at Millennium Pharmaceuticals, and Julia Greenstein, CEO of Immerge BioTherapeutics.
Take that Mr. Summers, an admittedly easy target.
Massachusetts Republican Governor Mitt Romney’s opposition to embryonic stem cell research may prove to be a tougher target, although Romney is certainly pro-business and generally pro-biotech. It will be interesting to watch an experienced insider like Finneran maneuver on behalf of the state’s biotech and biopharma industries. Last fall, the MBC released a comprehensive report titled “MassBioTech 2010,” prepared under the direction of the MBC Board, The Boston Consulting Group, and Finneran’s predecessor, Janice Bourque. The study is an ambitious roadmap that calls for growing Massachusetts’ biotech and related services workforce from its current 30,000 to 100,000.
It seems likely that sometime soon Finneran will offer a more extended personal view of what MBC can and should accomplish.
Whether to please the new MBC chief, or just because of the local community’s curiosity to see Finneran in action, Discovery Day organizers were able to entice a remarkable lineup of speakers from the upper crust of Massachusetts academia, biopharma, and biotech, including a large contingent (I counted six) with Harvard affiliations. Emerging biotechs were also represented.
Here are just a few of the many prominent speakers: Mark Fishman, CEO of Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research; Judah Folkman, angiogenesis pioneer with Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School; David Page, interim director, Whitehead Institute; Joshua LaBaer, director, Harvard Institute of Proteomics; David Friedman, director of biomarker technologies and head of proteomics, Vertex Pharmaceuticals; Sudeep Chandra, director, in vivo imaging, Millennium Pharmaceuticals; Akshay Vaishnaw, senior medical director, Biogen Idec; and Jeffrey Hanke, VP cancer discovery, AstraZeneca. (For the full agenda and roster, got to www.massbio.org/programs/discovery_day/2005_agenda.html.)
The MBC reported that 850-plus attendees had pre-registered for the conference, which was held at the Boston Marriott Copley Place Hotel. Session rooms were certainly full, but the exhibition floor was never crowded, and that left many of the roughly 90 exhibitors grumbling mildly. Finneran will probably need to mend a few fences and find a way to build foot traffic through the exhibit area next year.
Translational medicine and biomarkers comprised the day’s broad themes, and the science presented was fascinating, though generally not yet breakthrough. All-star casts kept sessions engaged.
Here’s a glimpse into the morning panel on biomarker discovery. LaBaer opened with a needed dose of reality by reviewing the many problems still bedeviling biomarkers (sensitivity, specificity, validation, data analysis, etc). Chandra presented the state of imaging techniques for biomarkers. Friedman described work using phosphorylation site occupancy rates as biomarkers. He suggested cancer cell “phosphotyping” might be possible. And William Hancock of Northeastern University discussed all things glycomic. It was an excellent overview session.
The day’s finale was a panel featuring Fishman talking about the need to close the gulf between the lab and the clinic to make translational medicine a reality. “The structure of [research] doesn’t lend itself to real medical involvement, only late in the process,” said Fishman. “We need a new cadre of clinician-researchers.” He also pushed for shorter proof-of-concept clinical trials.
While not exactly a coming-out party for Finneran, Discovery Day was the first opportunity for many to meet the MBC’s celebrated new head. Next year will provide a better report card.