High Hopes and Expectations About Tomorrow’s Science and Technology Challenge

5/27/08

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continued development of new therapeutics and treatments. Some 14-15 percent of the GDP of this country is spent on healthcare. The rate of increase in the cost of healthcare has grown at twice the rate of inflation, and the demand for more healthcare is going to increase due to the nation’s demographics. Today, a significant fraction of the population is finding it difficult to afford healthcare insurance. At the same time that we need to constrain growth in the cost of healthcare and expand its availability, we are entering the moment in history where science has the most to offer for the development of new and more effective treatments. This new power comes from advancements in science such as sequencing of the human genome, advances in human genetics of disease processes, and better technologies to produce new types of drugs designed from human factors that control disease processes.

I can perhaps illustrate this by a summary of some of the products of a biotech company I co-founded in 1978, thirty years ago. It is the oldest freestanding biotech company, Biogen Idec. The company is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and employs about 5,000 people around the world. Since its establishment, its technology has been important in developing the hepatitis B vaccine, which most of you have had experience with; the first effective treatment for hepatitis B and C based on human alpha interferon; the first effective treatment for multiple sclerosis based on human beta interferon; more recently a new and more effective treatment for MS based on blocking cell trafficking; and through our merger with Idec, a highly effective treatment for adult B-cell lymphoma, Rituxan. These are new types of therapies for previously untreatable diseases.

In the biotechnology industry and university research laboratories there are currently more new drugs and treatments under development for previously untreatable diseases than ever before. In fact, I have been in cancer research for over 40 years, and we clearly have the most promising new therapies and technology under development now than at any earlier time. Most people do not realize that age-adjusted death due to cancer has decreased in this country over the past decade. Most researchers believe that this decrease in the rate of deaths due to cancer will accelerate over the next decades, largely eliminating this disease from young adults and middle-aged people. This does not mean that we will eliminate cancer for everyone. Cancer will remain a medical reality for older people, but even here, we hope to have more effective treatments that do not have the damaging side-effects of many types of current chemotherapies. There is clearly much still to be done, but the promise is there when viewed from the progress of current science and drug development.

Let me talk about one example where I believe new technologies and science will produce innovative treatments with perhaps lower costs. At MIT we are establishing an exciting new Institute, the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, combining engineering and molecular biology. The objectives of the Institute are to integrate engineering at the nano-scale with cancer biology to target new therapies, create new types of gene-specific drugs, and fabricate new microscale processes that can separate and analyze individual cells from the blood. In the latter case these could be cancer cells or immune cells that could indicate an impending disease long before it became a major problem—and at a time in which it could be treated with little hard intervention.

We consider this new combination of engineering and cell biology so promising that we have labeled it “the third revolution in life sciences research,” with the first being the birth of molecular biology with the discovery of the structure of DNA, and the second being the genomic revolution that began with the contribution of Paul Berg and continued with the sequencing of the human genome. The third revolution is the integration of engineering and molecular biology. This will not only change how we are able to investigate the workings of cells, but will also produce new treatments.

You, as graduates of Eberly College, stand on the threshold of an amazing transition in history. The world is shrinking, but the expectations that all of the world’s population in the future will have the lifestyle of the citizens of this country over the past century is something the world cannot accommodate. We are challenged with global warming, expensive energy, and many issues of societal justice. Mastering these challenges falls on your shoulders. I believe some of the answers to these challenges are in the continued advancement of technology and science, areas in which you are now leaders. We have high expectations of you, and we are sure you are up to the challenge.

Dr. Phillip A. Sharp is an Institute Professor at MIT, and formerly the director of the Institute's Center for Cancer Research, the head of its Department of Biology, and the founding director of the McGovern Institute. Dr. Sharp won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work on "discontinuous genes" in mammalian cells. Follow @

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