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Pondering Biotech's Future

In conjunction with the opening of a new exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History about the beginnings of the biotechnology revolution, a high-profile panel of genomics, pharmaceutical, and biomedical research luminaries took to a stage last night for a laid-back confab about the future.

The group on stage included Harvard Medical School's George Church, Genentech and Apple Chairman Arthur Levinson, Duke Cancer Institute Professor Kimberly Blackwell, and Daniel Kraft, executive director of FutureMed, and the crowd included NIH Director Francis Collins.

The chat touched on a range of issues while generally hewing to the theme of how genomics and genetics and big data will impact medicine in the near future – what will be possible, what will actually work for patients, and whether it might save the US healthcare system some money.

Church spoke about some of the successes and failures of the genomics era, noting first the most salient fact that the cost of genome sequencing has plummeted over the past 20 years, and later discussed the efforts to sequence the genomes of centenarians to uncover potential protective gene and variants involved in aging.
But some promises don't always turn into reality, he admitted.

"The failure of gene therapy, ten years ago, was kind of a morale issue, as well as a setback," he admitted.

But the big innovations for treating patients are on the way, as the latest research begins to meld with clinical practice, Church and Blackwell agreed.

"The blurring has already occurred in genomics, where you can literally go from a research result to treating a patient," Church said.

Blackwell noted that "now scientists can be a part of the team" that treats a patient, marking a new movement in medicine.

But genomic and personalized medicine poses some unique problems, as the astonishing complexity of diseases comes into the light, Levinson suggested.

"The daunting prospect here is that in some of these diseases in every individual it is almost a unique case, the terrible scenarios is that you have to imagine developing a drug literally for every single patient," he said.

Genome sequencing offers great potential, Blackwell said, and it just now beginning to seep into clinical care, but for her the big question still is: "How do we get the scientists to the clinic?"

"We talk about sequencing 20,000 tumors, and we pull genes out, but what I really want to know is how do you take that information back and apply it to the patient that is sitting in front of you. That is where there is a huge potential to make a difference in 10 years. The science is here. The bioinformatics are here. We've just got to get it to the clinic.

The "Birth of Biotech" display, which features lab equipment from Genentech and officially opens today, explores the science and business involved in the creation of recombinant human insulin, which helped to jumpstart the biotechnology boom.