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Opinion | Jeffrey Leiden and David Torchiana

Nurturing the biomedical ecosystem

Stem cells viewed on a computer screen at UConn Health Center’s Stem Cell Institute.Spencer Platt/Getty Images

We recently joined leaders from across the biomedical ecosystem at the White House to discuss how to best support biomedical innovation that improves human health and creates jobs and opportunity for economic growth. We discussed the unique role of National Institutes of Health-funded academic research in understanding the biology of human disease, and the irreplaceable role of the biotech industry in translating these basic science discoveries into breakthrough therapies for serious human diseases.

There is no better example of the power of the innovation produced by this biomedical ecosystem than Massachusetts, which is the envy of the world. This network of leading teaching hospitals, universities, entrepreneur communities, venture capitalists and biotechnology companies, within 30 miles of each other, has created tremendous advances in health care and produced significant economic growth for the Commonwealth. The state is home to more than 400 biotech companies that garnered more than $2.1 billion in investment in 2015, a trajectory that is unmatched in our nation. This system employs more than 65,000 people.


But like any ecosystem — on a local or national scale — care is required. If we nurture and support it through continued NIH funding, meaningful intellectual property protections and appropriate rewards for breakthrough innovations, great things will happen for patients, the health care system and our economy. If we don’t, the opportunity in front of us to cure the next wave of serious diseases will be lost.

Today, Massachusetts’ innovation ecosystem is vibrant. Building on academic research supported by the National Institutes of Health at our peerless teaching hospitals, universities, and research institutions, it progresses through biotech startups funded by venture capital, and into established biotech and pharmaceutical companies funded by the public markets. While each component of the ecosystem plays a distinct role, they share a common, unifying goal — to use the power of science to improve and extend people’s lives.


Whether you are a researcher at Vertex or a practicing physician at Mass. General, you see the real-life impacts of medical research every day. Take, for example, the story of Vertex’s efforts to find treatments for cystic fibrosis — a rare, life-shortening genetic disease. The gene causing CF was first cloned by NIH-supported academic scientists in 1989. Based upon this discovery, Vertex scientists started a research effort in the late 1990s to discover transformative therapies to treat the underlying causes of CF. It has taken Vertex nearly 20 years and billions of dollars to develop these medicines, the first of which was approved in 2012. Throughout the course of our work, we’ve heard countless stories from patients and their families about how these medicines have transformed their lives.

The central framework for teaching hospitals relies on the synergy between problem identification, discovery, innovation, and ultimate commercialization by industry. Boston’s teaching hospitals boast a long tradition of medical contributions that improve human lives: the demonstration of general anesthesia, the world’s first solid organ transplant, chemotherapy for previously untreated childhood tumors, the development of the measles vaccine and molecular diagnostics to enable targeted therapy of lung cancer, to name just a few. The promise of basic biological discovery has never been greater, but this promise requires foundational funding of early-stage science, along with a community of researchers and clinicians closely teamed to address the most important unmet needs in human health.


The strength of our biomedical ecosystem matters. And we are standing on the threshold of even more remarkable progress, as our understanding of human diseases and their causes is greater than ever before.

Continued support of a vibrant biomedical ecosystem is not only a smart strategic investment, it’s also an economic and ethical imperative for our nation. Today, diseases such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, and diabetes continue to devastate millions of people around the world and their families, and present significant challenges to the overall health care system. In 2015 alone, the United States spent $226 billion on care related to Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. If no treatment or cure is discovered for the disease, that spending will increase to $1.1 trillion per year by 2050.

The cost of not investing in innovation is clear. However, if we properly nurture and support the innovation ecosystem, we are confident that Massachusetts can continue to lead the way, creating cures and preventive therapies for serious diseases and bending the cost curve for the US health care system, all while fostering economic growth and new jobs for our local and national economy.

Dr. Jeffrey Leiden is chairman, president, and chief executive officer of Vertex Pharmaceuticals. Dr. David Torchiana is president and chief executive officer of Partners HealthCare.