Volume 86 Issue 25 | p. 9 | News of The Week
Issue Date: June 23, 2008

Evolving Science

BIO conference attendees consider the future of health care
Department: Science & Technology
Credit: BIO
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Credit: BIO

MORE THAN 20,000 PEOPLE flocked to San Diego last week for the Biotechnology Industry Organization's annual meeting. Much of the conference focused on the ongoing transformation in the way that drugs are discovered, developed, and prescribed, and what that will mean in the next decade for drug companies and patients.

"The practice of medicine has, by and large, been the same over time," G. Steven Burrill, CEO of the life sciences investment firm Burrill & Co., told a packed auditorium on June 18. Although today's doctors enjoy the better drugs and improved diagnostics discovered by the pharmaceutical industry, their strategy is still to wait for people to get sick and then to treat them, he said.

In the future, Burrill continued, genetics will drive health care. The convergence of personalized medicine and information technology will enable people to treat their "state of wellness," he predicted, rather than just react to illness.

But Burrill's prediction can be realized only if companies understand the underlying genetics of disease and then effectively and efficiently translate that knowledge into drugs. Indeed, companies at BIO touted their strides in harnessing the tools of genomics to develop targeted therapies and the related biomarkers for those therapies.

"The goal is to have a paradigm shift in the way we discover drugs," said Richard Hargreaves, worldwide head of basic neuroscience at Merck & Co. Biomarkers can identify the right patient population for a drug, he said, but they can also help a company identify much earlier in the development process whether a drug is worth pursuing. Hargreaves' team, for example, is using molecular imaging to determine whether central nervous system drug candidates have engaged their targets in the body.

Another shift is the increasing reliance on partnerships as companies try to find the fastest route to new and better drugs. The drug industry has routinely funded individual researchers, and a plethora of biotech companies have sprung out of academic labs. In the past year, however, drug companies and academic institutions have begun to establish further-reaching alliances.

Merck laid the groundwork last September through a pact with Harvard Medical School that called for scientists from both organizations to work together in oncology and central nervous system disorders. Pfizer and AstraZeneca quickly followed suit, each linking up with multiple institutions in the past six months.

The idea is to capture a group of leading scientists at one institution, enabling basic preclinical and early clinical research in one spot, said Jan Lundberg, executive vice president of discovery research at AstraZeneca. Last week, AstraZeneca announced its fourth broad pact with academia since December 2007: an alliance with Columbia University Medical Center to discover mechanisms and new drug targets for diabetes and obesity.

 
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