A revolution in health care

Representatives from academia, industry, and government examine the trend toward precision medicine at MIT Sloan BioInnovations Conference

March 6, 2014

Alex Azar

Alex Azar, president, Lilly USA, LLC

The eleventh annual MIT Sloan BioInnovations Conference attracted nearly 350 students and industry professionals to the Boston Marriott Cambridge Feb. 28 to explore the theme “Precision Medicine & the Impact of Innovation on Targeted Care.”

Keynote speakers included George Church, a professor at Harvard Medical School and director of PersonalGenomes.org, Kieran Murphy, president and CEO of GE Healthcare Life Sciences, and Alex Azar, president of Lilly USA, LLC, a U.S. affiliate of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company.

In his talk, Azar noted the serendipity of the conference date, Feb. 28, the day James Watson and Francis Crick discovered DNA’s double helix structure 61 years ago.

“I do believe that Watson and Crick’s momentous discovery is a very appropriate starting point … because it begs an important question. Namely... why is personalized medicine not yet fully a reality? What’s the hold up?” asked Azar, who was deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from 2005-2007. “We all want to see the promise of personalized medicine realized, and I’m very confident we will.”

   Jouha Min, a graduate student in chemical engineering, outlines her research at the poster session.Jouha Min, a graduate student in chemical engineering, outlines her research at the poster session.

Azar separated the challenges of biotech research and development into three broad categories: the nature of scientific progress; current systems for regulatory approval and reimbursement; and what he dubbed “the crystal ball problem,” or the challenge of evaluating medicines today that were put into development years earlier.

For instance, when in 1971 Congress and President Richard Nixon declared the “war on cancer,” there was confidence that the war would be won quickly. “We were simply naïve. Since then, we’ve learned that cancer is not one disease, but more than 200 … we’ve also learned that responses to the same treatment for the same condition may vary considerably from patient to patient, depending on an individual’s genetic characteristics,” Azar said.

“Much of the promise of personalized medicine hinges on a more deductive approach to drug discovery and development, based on genetic understanding and biomarkers,” he said.

   Tiana Veldwisch, MBA ’14; Kieran Murphy; George Church; Anthony Chiu, PhD student; Runjhun Srivastava, MBA ’15 Tiana Veldwisch, MBA ’14; Kieran Murphy; George Church; Anthony Chiu, PhD student; Runjhun Srivastava, MBA ’15

Another consideration, Azar said, is that it takes a pharmaceutical company at least 10 years and at least $1.2 billion to research, develop, and bring a new medicine to market. Medicines that reach the market today were discovered and put into development a decade ago, he noted. “It’s very hard to personalize medicine today that entered clinical trials a decade ago,” he said.

Conference co-chairs Tiana Veldwisch, MBA ’14, and Anthony Chiu, a PhD candidate in biology, called the conference a success. Both were involved in planning last year’s event as well, and this year they praised the team of 15 students who put the conference together. The day also included panels titled: Big Data in Health Care; Innovation Trends in Upstream R&D; Seizing Uncaptured Opportunities in Emerging Markets; and Transforming Health Care Entrepreneurship. Attendees were also given the chance to enjoy a poster session highlighting research and health care stories from both startups and academics.

“We heard from many attendees how the panel discussions included very diverse perspectives and new ideas. We also continued the increase in attendance, with a good split between students and industry professionals, to maximize the networking benefit,” Veldwisch said.