Yesterday, I attended an Xconomy meeting hosted by Millennium on the war on cancer. It was an interesting meeting, well attended and with some spirited interaction between the presenters, panels and audience.
For those unaware of the Boston scene, MIT sits by the Charles River and several biotech and pharma companies including Millennium, Ariad, sanofi-aventis, Genzyme and Novartis Institute for Biomedical Research (NIBR) sit behind it. You can walk between them in minutes. Mass General and Tufts Hospitals are just 5-10 mins away in a taxi on the Boston side of the river, Harvard is a few minutes by cab from MIT in Cambridge.
It’s the very ease of relative access that makes interactions here much easier and also valuable. Last time I was here, I kept bumping into people I knew, including researchers in the streets, “Oh, can I ask you a quick question please?!”
It’s the classic Porter cluster effect and it seems to be working well here. Still, you never see this in NJ Pharma-land, ever. Why? Because they all live on ivory tower campuses that you usually have to drive around and academia is miles away in Manhattan (and Boston). I hadn’t really thought of it this way before, but I can see that new emerging transformative technologies and therapies are more likely to come out of Boston and San Francisco than New Jersey, at least in the cancer field.
There were a number interesting observations that emerged from the meeting.
- No pharma peeps hiding behind a lectern here – people, including Millennium CEO Deborah Dunsire, stood out in front and engaged with the audience or became animated in panel discussion. This is refreshing and I’d love to see more of this more laid back approach, without spin and carefully couched speeches.
- The panel session with Alexis Borisy (CEO Foundation Medicine), Tuan Na-Ngoc (CEO Aveo Pharma), Adelene Perkins (CEO Infinity), Nancy Simonian (CMO Millennium) was fun and adroitly moderated by Sylvia Westphal (Xconomy). Biomarkers, selecting patients carefully for treatment, targeted therapies, new combinations, new smarter scientific approaches, and greater collaborations in research with academia were very much the main topics discussed.
- While the authorities seem to be trying to build walls between industry and academia, the prevailing mood was very much that this is a bad thing and that closer collaborations should be both welcomed and encouraged. We can’t continue with the old style models of development and expect them to work well in the new environment. Such an approach, with its high costs, low success rate and high phase III attrition, is not sustainable in the long run.
- As we learn more about the biology of cancer, so we should become smarter about which drugs we evaluate in which patient subsets, which combinations and sequences, in earlier rather than later disease. Everyone wants to see bigger wins, not incremental improvements.
- Some interesting new emerging technologies were discussed were discussed on RNAi by Dave Okrongly from Quanterix and epigenetics by Mark Goldsmith of Constellation Pharma. The single molecule testing concept particularly caught my imagination. Quanterix’s PSA assay test appears to be 1000x more sensitive than current assays and this has major implications for the detection and monitoring of prostate cancer. Why? Because if we can pick up aggressive disease (where the PSA rate doubles) earlier, we may ultimately be able to do better with earlier and more appropriate intervention treatment for the patients before the disease metastases out of control.
- The mood in Boston seems much more cohesive, upbeat and focused than what I see in the NY/NJ region dominated by big Pharma and old school ways of thinking.
- It’s all about the science, baby!
One of the highlights for me, other than the excellent networking opportunities, was the final panel session with Mike Huckman (formerly Pharma’s Market on CNBC now on the dark side at MSL, a PR agency) and Tyler Jacks, a cancer researcher from MIT/Koch Institute.
Mike kicked off by asking Tyler about the Cancer Caucus event hosted by Harold Varmus of the NCI a couple of weeks ago, where a key group of scientists and clinicians were holed up discussing and identifying the most important areas in cancer that we don’t know about or need addressing. Tyler identified his 3 key things as:
- Identifying phenotypes and drivers of cancer that link to molecular aberrations
- Making sense of the complexity of the human genome (we have a lot of data but what does it all mean?)
- Figuring out the characteristics of early lesions and how they progress (if we figure that out, can we stop them sooner?)
The NCI meeting created a mechanism for discussion and dialogue, but closer collaboration (between industry and academia) is clearly seen as the way forward.
Jacks also discussed a number of other pertinent areas, including advances in preclinical models and how new generation versions are much more accurate and sensitive for predicting what might happen. The old models were largely ‘short cuts’ and not very representative of what’s going on. The new models and approaches are teaching us more about resistance and how it arises, for example.
Related to this is better diagnostic tests, leading to better more targeted treatments. Interestingly, he was very upbeat about solving the cancer problem and how the next generation of researchers will likely see bigger strides as we start unravelling the puzzles.
Mike also asked Tyler about Boston as a location for fighting the war on cancer. Tyler replied that it is a wonderful environment for this given that acedemia, biologists, engineers and biotech research all exist in the same place, with MIT providing a natural hub or link. The culture of MIT was discussed as something they are working hard on, although younger scientists are inevitably more willing and flexible to change and adapt (this also applies anywhere).
For the next week or so, the Twitter stream will still be searchable, so for those interested, you can check my live tweets from the meeting using #xconomy and get a flavour for what the biotech chiefs and academia think about ‘Boston’s War on Cancer’ – remember to read from the bottom up as the newest tweets will be at the top.
Unfortunately, Twitter did it’s famous fail whale (no access) near the end (grrr) and thus the last two sessions are missing, including the chat with Tyler Jacks.
If you were at the Xconomy meeting, do feel free to add anything I’ve missed or if you have any other thoughts on the sessions. For me, it was a great afternoon and I’d to thank Luke Timmerman of Xconomy for inviting me to the excellent event, highly recommended, would definitely go again!