Biotech Strategy Blog

Commentary on Science, Innovation & New Products with a focus on Oncology & Hematology

Posts tagged ‘Biomedical Innovation’

Today is the first “Innovation Day” at Children’s Hospital Boston. For those, like me, who can’t be in Boston for it, you can follow on Twitter using the hashtag #iday or watch online via live streaming.

Children's Hospital Boston Innovation Acceleration ProgramI’m impressed that the hospital has an Innovation Acceleration Program focused on supporting “clinical care that impacts patients around the world.

I think this event is a really great way to showcase some of the interesting research and collaboration that is taking place in the hospital in the field of device development, healthcare IT and process innovation.

The program starts at 1.00pm EST. On the Agenda are a few talks that caught my imagination:

Does my baby have a “flat head”? Using the web and digital photos to triage visits to the doctor’s office,  Joseph R. Madsen, MD

Pediatric Vision Scanner: A handheld device that diagnoses vision problems in preschoolers,  David Hunter, MD, PhD

New directions in drug delivery: A contact lens that dispenses medication, Dan Kohane, MD, PhD

The Children’s Hospital Boston science and innovation blog (Vector), which is well worth reading, also has a preview of their Innovation Day.

Given the ease and low cost with which events can be webcast or live streamed, and the potential to reach a global audience, I hope that other institutions will follow Children’s Hospital Boston and showcase their innovation in this way.

Good luck to all at Children’s with your first Innovation Day!

Innovation involves insight that allows you to see around the corners. That’s the perspective according to Andrew Marks, Professor of Physiology & Cellular Biophysics at Columbia University Medical Center, who recently wrote a Commentary on Innovation in Science Translational Medicine.

Entitled “Repaving the Road to Biomedical Innovation Through Academia”, Professor Marks’ commentary captures the reader’s attention in the first sentence:

“The path to biomedical innovation requires a synthesis of seemingly unrelated observations.”

He goes on to say, “innovation requires joining the pieces to solve the puzzle.”

Innovation according to Marks is difficult to define, something I also noticed at BIO 2011 in the industry panel that I attended.

However, like pornography, “we know it when we see it” to paraphrase Justice Potter. Mark gives examples of innovation in the biological sciences: germ theory of disease by Lister, discovery of antibiotics exemplified by Fleming, Watson & Crick’s work on the structure of DNA.

I don’t disagree that these are examples of paradigm shifting scientific discovery fueled in some cases by serendipity. But are they the best examples of innovation in the biological sciences? Has nothing innovative happened in the past 50 years that is worth mentioning?

In his commentary, Marks goes on to outline the reasons he thinks biomedical research is threatened in the current environment. This includes the standard litany of woes expressed by many academics today:

  • increased costs
  • insufficient support
  • limited industry support
  • prolonged postdoctoral training
  • limited opportunities for research careers in academic medicine

Interestingly, however, he suggests that part of the fault for this lies with academia.

Academia and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have failed to evolve with the times, he writes. They “have been guilty of a lack of innovation” in how they support science.

Today’s challenge according to Marks is the need to balance revolutionary research that is innovative with incremental research necessary to further knowledge.

Marks goes on to say that the NIH is not well equipped to judge innovative groundbreaking research.  Moreover, “the unwritten rule, often said tongue in cheek, is that when applying for NIH funding one should only propose experiments that one has already done and for which one can show convincing preliminary data.”

The solution he proposes is to change the way federal funding of biomedical research takes place. The NIH should divert to industry the costs of clinical trials and establish distinct funding mechanisms for high-risk research. I am not sure I agree with this, as many clinical trials would not be funded by industry and translational research is not just about basic science, but is from bench to bedside.

The solution proposed by Marks also predisposes that you can properly assess and judge innovative research when you see it.  This is not as easy as it seems. As Marks points out:

“NIH likely would not have funded proposals to test the germ-theory, antibiotic-action, or DNA double–helix hypotheses because these projects either would have been deemed too risky (that is, they have a low likelihood of success) or too speculative (lacking in sufficient “preliminary data”) or because the approach would have been criticized as being misguided.”

Instead of looking for new ways to fund basic science, Marks proposes a rework of the way NIH funds research.  Cutting the same cake in a different way is unlikely to solve the fundamental problem: there is simply not enough government funding to go around. In the face of the US budget deficit, it is hard to imagine a significant increase in NIH funding to create new funding opportunities.

Would a more innovative approach be to ask academics to rethink how research is funded in their institutions?  Focusing on the NIH and Federal Government funding is not the optimal solution in my opinion.

Marks is right in that Academia needs to innovate how science is supported. Incremental change of the way NIH funding takes place may fill in some potholes, but will not repave the road to biomedical innovation.

ResearchBlogging.orgMarks, A. (2011). Repaving the Road to Biomedical Innovation Through Academia Science Translational Medicine, 3 (89), 89-89 DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3002223

Science Translational Medicine June 29, 2011 Cover based on Rodin's The ThinkerWith an image of Rodin’s bronze “The Thinker” on its cover suggesting deep thought and insight, Science Translational Medicine (STM) analyzes the state of innovation in its June 29 issue.

STM states (without any authority) that “A powerful perception that innovation has stagnated persists in the biomedical research community.” STM asks, “Why have remarkable advances in basic biological science been so slow to be translated to improvements in clinical medicine?”

Unfortunately there is no identification of any “remarkable advances” that have been slow in being translated into clinical practice.

That’s not to say they don’t exist, merely the fact that from a hard-hitting science driven journal, it’s hard to hang your hat on mere assertions.

The three Commentaries on innovation by thought leaders in the June 29 issue offer varying perspectives, but like all opinion pieces it’s hard to judge competing views. STM in their editorial notes the only common thread they could detect among the Commentaries on innovation is that  “a new mindset must drive risk-benefit analysis.”

It is good to see a debate on innovation, but I think in the data driven world of science, I expected more from Science Translational Medicine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The first Commentary on Innovation published in the June 29 issue of STM is by Elazer Edelman, the Thomas D. and Virginia W. Cabot Professor of Health Sciences and Technology at MIT, and Martin Leon, Professor of Medicine at Columbia entitled “The Fiber of Modern Society.”

Why innovate? This is a good starting point for Edelman’s and Leon’s commentary. After all if innovation does not add value, then it’s a worthless exercise.  The authors, surprisingly for distinguished academics loose the reader in the first few paragraphs through their verbosity and lack of clarity:

Now grafted onto this engrained philosophy is a drop-off in the metrics of novelty and the perception that creation has stagnated—at least in biomedical science. As we are well into the 21st century, it behooves scientists and policy-makers not only to assess the accuracy of this impression but also to validate the long-accepted mantra.

The above causes me pain to read and attempt to process.  Does anyone really “behoove” anything in the 21st century?

The authors touch on competing views about what innovation is, but having raised the question of how to define it, fail to offer their opinion. Instead they move straight on by saying “irrespective of the definition.

Defining innovation is important – science is about preciseness. If you can’t define a theory how can you test it or measure it. While we may have different views of what innovation is, thought leaders on the topic should frame their perspective around some definition.

Is innovation really dead the authors go on to ask? They cite to the large number of publications in recent years that claim the death of innovation or express concern about it. However, while raising third-party concerns they also point out the progress that has been made in the reduction in mortality and morbidity over the past 40 years through advances in technology.

The authors again don’t answer the question they have asked on whether innovation is dead? Instead they move on to their next topic and suggest that “fear of risk stifles innovation” – spending cuts will lead to less creativity. The authors then launch into a diatribe on the pitfalls of a lower NIH budget.   Evidence of the demise of innovation is the decline in the number of registered patents or FDA applications for new molecular entities (NME).

What are the authors conclusions and recommendations?  They state:

“we must find ways to teach and support innovation without falling prey to conflicts of interest, without confusing innovation with greed-directed entrepreneurship.”

However, they don’t offer any specifics on how to do this, and what exactly is “greed-directed entrepreneurship” when it’s at home? Is it wrong to profit from innovation?

This Commentary by Edelman and Leon is not the deep insightful piece that Rodin’s Thinker suggests, instead it is a rambling piece that is disappointing in my opinion.

In future blog posts, I’ll be reviewing the other Commentaries on Innovation published by STM.

ResearchBlogging.orgEdelman, E., & Leon, M. (2011). The Fiber of Modern Society Science Translational Medicine, 3 (89), 89-89 DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3002190

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