Business

‘Convergence’ of science and engineering seen key to new therapies

Marc Casper (left), Nancy Simonian, Elias Zerhouni, Cori Bargmann, Victor Dzau, and Tyler Jacks spoke at Friday’s symposium at MIT.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Marc Casper (left), Nancy Simonian, Elias Zerhouni, Cori Bargmann, Victor Dzau, and Tyler Jacks spoke at Friday’s symposium at MIT.

CAMBRIDGE — The next biomedical revolution will combine biology and engineering to accelerate treatments for cancer and other diseases, a panel of top research and business leaders told a Massachusetts Institute of Technology symposium Friday.

Scientists are crunching data to better understand which genetic mutations may be susceptible to medicines, creating a drug discovery model that could yield a new generation of personalized therapies and collaborative research, they said.

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“To my mind, this is the 21st century’s innovation story,” said MIT president emeritus Susan Hockfield, who moderated the panel at the institute’s Kresge Auditorium and is writing a book on the “convergence” of science and engineering in many fields.

The new model eventually may allow “clinical trials of one” in which small doses of experimental drugs can be tested in individual patients, said Tyler Jacks, director of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, which sponsored the symposium.

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Scientists have long known how to make molecules and find drug targets but couldn’t identify which patients would benefit from treatments, said Nancy Simonian, chief executive of Syros Pharmaceuticals Inc., a Cambridge biotech developing targeted cancer therapies. The new approach will enable drug developers to “intervene in diseases much earlier than we do today, and that’s what will make the difference,” Simonian told more than 500 people at the event.

More advanced research and diagnostic tools are also playing a role. Marc Casper, chief executive of Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., a Waltham company that supplies lab equipment, said diagnostic products such as advanced sequencers that can draw a patient’s blood, deliver results, and screen for targeted therapies the same day are “not far away.”

Such efficiencies may emerge, but several panelists warned that the current system is still beset by waste, including unnecessary tests and procedures, that are driving up costs.

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While medicines such as statins and HIV drugs have reduced medical spending and improved quality of life, health care in the United States costs about 50 percent more than in European countries such as France and Germany, said Elias Zerhouni, president for global research and development at French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi SA.

Zerhouni faulted the dysfunctional American health care system, with politicians unfairly blaming rising costs on improved technology. “You have a political system that sees innovation as the culprit in health care costs,” he said.

To move forward, scientists and businesses will have to not only contain medical costs but enlist the public’s help in understanding genetic defects, said Cori Bargmann, president of science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which seeks to prevent, cure, and manage diseases.

“Human beings are very different from each other, and we’re going to have to study them by testing very large numbers of people,” she said. “So citizens will have to be our collaborators.”

Zerhouni, the former director of the National Institutes of Health, said research scientists of the future will come from farflung fields ranging from diagnostics to information technology.

He urged business and academic research labs to “break the barriers between disciplines so you can cross-fertilize” in an effort to advance disease-fighting drug discoveries.

He also called for better communication among academic scientists, who work on basic research, and scientists in industry, who work to convert that work into new therapies. “The challenge becomes how does the expertise that exists within industry get out into the academic community,” Casper said.

One way to do that is putting people from disparate backgrounds together in one place.

“Proximity matters,” Jacks said. “If you want to break down walls, put up fewer walls.”

Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.
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