In Praise of Senator Ted Kennedy For His Contributions to Biomedical Science

11/24/08

Earlier this month, I had the tremendous honor of being asked to discuss Senator Ted Kennedy’s remarkable contributions to biomedical science at an event celebrating The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate that was organized by The Massachusetts healthcare and life sciences communities. Following are my comments:

As I studied the record of the Senator, it became apparent that few national leaders have had as significant impact on the current state of biomedical science and healthcare delivery. He has been foresighted in his leadership by championing inclusion of the disadvantaged into the healthcare system and at the same time strengthening biomedical research that advances the range and quality of treatments available.

Senator Kennedy was first elected to the Senate 46 years ago in 1962. Relating this tenure to my own experiences in science, he was a Senator when I graduated from high school and has shaped many of the opportunities in my life, even though at the time I was unaware of it.

The center of biomedical research and innovation in healthcare in the world is now in Massachusetts. This epicenter has grown over the 40 years of Senator Kennedy’s tenure and will create a large part of the future of healthcare. The foundations of this epicenter, with the addition of biotechnology in the 70s, were the universities such as Harvard, MIT, BU, Tufts, BC, and others—and the great hospitals such as MGH, Brigham and Women’s, Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Children’s Hospital, and many others.

Senator Kennedy’s leadership in encouraging advances in biomedical research began with his election as Chairman of the Senate Health Subcommittee in 1971. In this capacity, he helped pass the National Cancer Act that established the modern National Cancer Institute and quadrupled the funds supporting cancer research. Senator Kennedy stated his support of biomedical research at the time as: “The conquest of cancer is a special problem of such enormous concern to all Americans.” In relating his feelings to those of the country, he further stated, “We can quote statistics. But I think every one of us in this body, and most families across the country have been touched by the disease one way or another.” I am sorry to say that this has certainly been the case for the Senator’s family.

The National Cancer Act has been important for biomedical research across the country and particularly here in Boston. It greatly strengthened the already-strong cancer research and treatment programs at the Dana Farber, MGH, and Children’s Hospital. In addition, this act radically changed the course of research in life sciences at MIT. For example, Professor Salvador Luria, subsequently a Nobel Laureate, convinced MIT to support his application to NCI for funds to establish a new center dedicated to research into fundamental aspects of cancer. David Baltimore took leadership in recruiting the staff of the center; this included yours truly, who joined MIT in 1974.

Research from the Center has been important in the development of several highly successful new targeted therapies. Perhaps more important in terms of the region, the success of MIT’s Center for Cancer Research either directly or indirectly led to the establishment of the Whitehead Institute, the Broad Institute, and the Koch Institute. These institutes, along with MGH and Harvard, have shaped the Kendall Square area with a large concentration of biotechnology companies. There are similar stories about the importance of the National Cancer Act at other universities and hospitals in Massachusetts. This act passed with Senator Kennedy’s leadership clearly initiated a revolution in cancer research and treatment across the country.

Funds for cancer research have grown over the intervening years with Senator Kennedy’s support ,and we pray that he will benefit from these advances in his current struggle. Although no one is satisfied with current treatments of cancer, significant progress has been made. The rate of age-dependent death due to cancer has fallen over the past decade by 25 percent. There are more promising new drugs and treatments under development now than at any time in history. We are making significant progress but the question remains, will it be fast enough to impact the coming epidemic of the disease as the baby boomers age?

AIDS is the worst pandemic of modern times, killing tens of millions of people around the world—and here again, Senator Kennedy’s statesmanship has been important. As the pandemic unfolded across this country in the early 80′s there was wide discrimination against individuals who contracted the virus. Senator Kennedy was instrumental, along with Senator Orrin Hatch, in helping to reduce this fear by passing the Ryan White CARE Act. This law made AIDS research and treatment a national priority, and, as a result, there has been a reduction in the prejudice against those infected. As you recall, Ryan White was a young boy who fought to attend school after being diagnosed with AIDS.

Due to the Senator’s action many drugs have been developed that markedly decrease the rate of progression of the disease, and we now consider AIDS a treatable disease. However, we have not mastered this scourge of mankind. The ultimate victory requires the development of a vaccine. In this effort, we have exhausted all of our current knowledge without success. The National Institutes of Health and drug companies have turned their focus to advancing the understanding of the human immune system for new clues for development of an effective vaccine. In spite of this disappointment, it is clear that Senator Kennedy’s leadership was critical in our current mastery of AIDS.

Innovations in healthcare are dependent upon a wise federal regulatory system that works in an open and effective manner. Senator Kennedy recognized this early in his career, and in 1976 authored an act to include medical devices in the regulatory authority of the Food and Drug Administration, i.e. the FDA. He also promoted legislation in 1992 that increased the FDA budget by levying fees on drug companies to help with the cost of approval of new drugs. Another act championed by the Senator in this area was the Orphan Drug Act that encouraged companies to develop new drugs for rare diseases. The Senator’s leadership in regulatory affairs over the decades has been important for both healthcare and biomedical research.

As mentioned above, New England is the center of research and development of healthcare. Quoting from a 2006-7 study of this life science super-cluster, one in every six employees in the state works in this industrial sector. Every year, this cluster attracts over $2 billion of federal research funds from the National Institutes of Health, the highest per capital number in the country.

This level of Federal support reflects the excellence of the community. The future of this innovation in healthcare was greatly strengthened in 1998, when Senator Kennedy, along with others, helped pass the doubling of the National Institutes of Health budget. At the time, the initiative to sequence the human genome was in full swing and the insights gained from this information promised to lead to the development of means of controlling and treating many diseases. The Senator stated at the time, “We all had to fight to create the extraordinary medical innovations we enjoy today, and we have to fight as hard now to maintain that progress.” He followed this with a statement that is relevant today as federal support for the National Institute of Health decreases: “A culture of innovation and discovery and high-quality healthcare does not just happen. It must be nurtured or it will wither.”

Again, the Senator’s insights that led to doubling of the budget were correct. In the short five years since completion of the doubling that coincided with completion of the human genome sequence, there has been tremendous progress made in terms of understanding the causes of mental disease, the underlying nature of genetic changes in cancer, and even the nature of the aging process and aging-related diseases. This increase in funding will translate into better quality healthcare for the country and the world.

For 40 years, Senator Kennedy has been—as he will continue to be—a strong voice for the importance of biomedical research and healthcare. Our country has benefited enormously from his leadership. Further, New England’s pre-eminence in life sciences is largely a product of his enlightened work in the Senate. We sincerely thank him for his magnificent contributions. We also wish him a speedy recovery.

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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  • tomk

    After killing the Secretary he used to sleep with, he better have done some good after all these years in politics.