On the day that Carlsbad, CA-based Life Technologies (NASDAQ: LIFE) is scheduled to issue its third-quarter financial results, Life chairman and CEO Greg Lucier provided a hugely insightful overview of the company’s changing corporate strategy.
“We’ll do about $3.6 billion in revenue this year,” Lucier said at a breakfast meeting in San Diego earlier today. “About $300 million is in medical molecular diagnostics, and we think that in five years, several billion will be in the medical field. So we’re changing the entire complexion of the company to become more medical, to be a big research company and a big medical company over the next five years. You’ll see a lot more announcements over the next several quarters as we make that change.”
Lucier’s talk was billed as a breakfast chat “on the future of personalized genomic medicine” by Biocom, the San Diego life sciences industry group that hosted the event. But it covered other ground as well, including prospects for San Diego’s innovation economy in exploiting breakthroughs that moderator M. Wainwright Fishburn called the “pathways to fast water.”
“If you think about what we’ve been through in San Diego, it’s been a bit of a tough challenge,” said Fishburn, a corporate lawyer and Biocom board member. While biopharmaceuticals and wireless communications served as past economic foundations in San Diego, new opportunities are emerging in mobile health, industrial biotechnology, and personalized medicine.
Lucier agreed. “We’re at a very interesting inflection point, and I think that inflection point is this transition from science to engineering,” he said. “We now have the ability to properly characterize key aspects of how life works… It’s starting to have an enormous influence on how drugs will be developed, and quite frankly, how crops are going to be developed, the food you eat, and very importantly, the fuel to power the Earth.”
As an example, Lucier cited a study published four years ago in Trends in Molecular Medicine that showed the relative effectiveness of different types of drugs—due simply to genetic variation among the patients getting the drugs. The response rate ranges from a roughly 75 percent effectiveness for statins to roughly 25 percent for beta blockers and 20 percent for oncology drugs.
“In cancer, only one in five drugs will actually have the desired impact you want to have on a patient,” Lucier said. “It’s not a very good success rate, and it shows you just how we haven’t fully understood the cause and effect of a therapeutic. That’s what we’re talking about fixing.”
In explaining the concept of personalized medicine, Lucier said, “The most cutting-edge work taking place today is this idea that we can genomically sequence you. We can really understand what mutations you have, we can then compare it to what therapeutics are known to work on that particular problem and give it to you, and then we can see if it works. That’s the ‘trial of one.’ It seems very commonsense, seems straightforward, and yet I will tell you this is probably the most revolutionary and provocative comment in the FDA today.”
A key change driving the strategic shift at Life Technologies, Lucier said, was the company’s $725 million acquisition of Ion Torrent Systems, the Connecticut-based startup using “chemical transistors” technology to develop microprocessors capable of directly reading genetic information.
“It uses semiconductor technology as the starting point for reading the genome,” Lucier explained. It displaces the existing, image-based technology for reading DNA with a digital processing device that could potentially scan a patient’s entire personal genome in less than two hours. Doctors could then use a patient’s personal molecular profile to prescribe drugs and a course of treatment that is tailored to act more specifically with certain genetic variations, an approach known as “evidence-based medicine.”
It also helps explain a bit of news that was largely overlooked earlier this month when Life Technologies named Dr. Paul R. Billings as Chief Medical Officer, a newly created corporate position intended to improve patient care by expanding the use of medically relevant genomic technologies in clinical settings.
The Ion Torrent acquisition, Lucier said, marks a new era for technology that enables super-fast genetic sequencing at a low cost “and moves it to the medical realm in the next two years or so.”
In discussing the paradigm shift to come in personalized medicine, Lucier also made some other noteworthy observations:
—“If you have one in five drugs wrong in cancer, and you’re fighting cancer, those of you may have even had that battle, you know that time is of the essence. So the last thing you can have is a mistake, or a trial-and-error approach. Unfortunately, that is the state of medicine today.”
—“Cancer is the right place to start in terms of engineering disease…The way we talk about it today, cancer is a geography, or a location on your body, you know, breast cancer or pancreatic cancer. Actually, the people who are really in the avant-garde of cancer treatment today know that’s not the way you’ve got to be thinking about it in the future. It’s actually by pathway. [For example, in a brain cancer study] it turned out the best drug to deal with the brain cancer was a drug for testicular cancer. It shows that they were actually the exact same cancer. So it’s really about the pathway, or what pathway has been perturbed and mutated, and then you’re trying to do something to impact that…The way we’re going to be thinking about cancer in the future is, what ‘pathway’ cancer do you have—not ‘is it breast cancer?'”
—“The real problem here is the regulatory environment… The FDA is certainly at this point a step or two behind potentially in the science, and certainly has more of a focus on safety and risk mitigation, versus treatment and hopefully advancing therapy. I would love to see a more candid, open debate in society about what risks we’re willing to take for experimental drugs and perhaps give the patients more of a voice in that decision. Today patients don’t have a big enough voice in the ultimate decision. The FDA has no upside. So they’re constantly out to mitigate the downside risk. Obviously the companies only want the upside, so there’s got to be something in between that brings the patient back into this equation.”
—“Our friends down the road at [San Diego-based] Illumina and Life Technologies have certainly been involved in this absolute explosion of knowledge that has taken place in just the last five years. [National Institutes of Health director] Francis Collins likes to say that we’ve learned more about human disease in the last five years than we have in the previous 50 years. I think that trend is actually going to accelerate, not decelerate. The next five years we’ll know more about the association of our genome to the disease than we did in the last 50.”
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