East Coast Life Sciences Roundup: IBM, ImmunoGen, Breakthrough Prize, & More

Xconomy New York — 

The symbiotic ties between industry and university scientists were a big theme this week in East Coast news. Some top academic researchers became instant millionaires as tech moguls honored their biomedical innovations, and new university institutes launched projects to accelerate progress in the pharmaceutical world. And the FDA’s approval of a new Genentech cancer drug means royalties for a Massachusetts biomedical company.

—Waltham, MA-based ImmunoGen (NASDAQ: IMGN) helped Roche division Genentech figure out how to make its cancer drug Herceptin more potent, and the resulting drug, ado-trastuzumab emtansine (Kadcyla) was approved by the FDA on Friday for certain patients with metastatic breast cancer. ImmunoGen will receive royalties for the technology it licensed to Genentech—methods for attaching toxin molecules to antibody drugs such as Herceptin, which can deliver the toxins selectively to cancer cells.

—Eleven luminaries of the life sciences universe are probably walking around with stunned smiles on their faces as the first winners of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, set up by technology stars including the founders of Google and Facebook. Seven of those biological scientists—who will receive $3 million each—are at research centers in New York and Boston. The list includes genome sequencing pioneer Eric Lander of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, MA; two winners at Rockefeller University in New York, neurobiologist Cornelia Bargmann and Titia de Lange, an expert on telomeres; and cancer researcher Lewis Cantley of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.

—Companies such as Cambridge, MA-based Foundation Medicine and academic medical centers such as New York City’s new Institute for Precision Medicine are trying to pave an early path toward reimbursement for individual patient genomes and DNA assays of hundreds of different genes. They’re making the case to health plans that fuller genetic screening can improve diagnosis and reveal wider options for treatment. Foundation Medicine’s test for mutations in tumor tissue, Foundation One, looks at more than 236 genes linked to cancer in the scientific literature. The Institute for Precision Medicine, founded this year, will be looking for more links as it treats patients who have run out of options.

—That new institute, by the way, is a joint venture between NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and the Weill Cornell Medical College, which made news this week by announcing it had created an artificial human ear using 3-D printing. Along with colleagues at Cornell University, the Weill Cornell bioengineers took a digital image of a real ear, and then used it to print a 3-D mold into which they injected a gel made of living cells. They say such an ear might be ready for a transplant in three years.

—Pharmaceutical companies could be among the beneficiaries of New York University’s new Center for Data Science, which will train computer and math students to grapple with big data issues arising for businesses of all sorts. The program will match students up with companies to explore the challenges and opportunities that come with the deluge of information they create or use. The students could learn how to help drug companies deal with clinical trial data and genetic clues in drug development. Health care companies might get some help coordinating patient treatment and organizing their records.

—Some of the biggest data ever created comes from the sequencing of the human genome, and IBM is teaming up with the nonprofit Coriell Institute for Medical Research in Camden, NJ, to get ready for the day when genome sequencing becomes a routine diagnostic test. Their collaboration, called Coriell Life Sciences, plans to make it easy for doctors to make sense out of the deluge of genetic information, according to a story in MIT Technology Review. The business plans to sequence genomes, store the data in secure vaults, and help doctors order interpretations from the best companies in each disease field.

—Overwhelmed by big data? Take a break and think about Big Hair. The Cambridge, MA-based company Living Proof says it has raised another $30 million to puff out its hair care line and move into other beauty products. One of the investors, actress Jennifer Aniston, is the star of a new ad campaign for the company. Its products are based on scientific innovations, including a molecule called PBAE, which reportedly coats the hair strands with “thickening dots” for that fuller, thicker look.