Sometimes you get lucky before a conference and catch an interview with a thought leader ahead of time when it’s more relaxed and less fraught with all the demands of meetings etc while there.
Dr R Young, Source: WI
That good fortune happened to me on the Friday before the recent AACR conference in San Diego, when I recorded an interview with Dr Richard Young, (Whitehead Institute & MIT and scientific co-founder of Syros), who was giving a plenary talk on the Sunday at AACR entitled, “Transcriptional and Epigenetic Control of Tumor Cells.”
Epigenetics and transcriptional changes are fascinating concepts to me because they get right to the heart of what’s going on deep in the oncogenes and how they control processes in cancer. Clearly, in simplistic terms, if we can understand how things change and evolve, then we can potentially devise better strategies to overcome them. Instead of targeting a protein kinase with a small molecule or a cell surface antigen with a monocloncal antibody, this is an altogether different approach. Protein-protein interactions such as MYC, RUNX1, p53/TP53 etc have long been the bugbear and frustration of many good researchers, precisely because they are challenging to target with conventional approaches.
So what’s new and why am I really excited about these new developments?
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I recently returned from a few days in Boston & Cambridge, so today, in memory of the late Alastair Cooke and his Letter from America, broadcast for 58 years from 1946 to 2004, I wanted to share with you my “Letter from Boston”.
New England is the No 1 biotechnology region on the East Coast of the United States and the Boston/Cambridge area of Massachusetts is the hub.
What makes Boston/Cambridge so attractive as a biotech region? Amongst many, I’d suggest 3 factors stand out to me:
- Access to World-Class Science with an Entrepreneurial Focus. With over 50,000 students in the Boston/Cambridge area it is a city with a focus on higher education. Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Northeastern, Tufts, Massachusetts General Hospital are but a few of the many research institutions. However, what strikes me about the researchers in Boston/Cambridge area is the entrepreneurial focus they have. The idea of starting up a company, commercializing an innovation or finding the application of science is something a lot of people want to do. This entrepreneurial focus is key to the success of industry/academic colloboration in the area.
- Critical Mass of Industry infrastructure. There’s a range of companies in the Boston/Cambridge area. From start-ups such as Blueprint Medicines to more established companies such as Ariad, Vertex and Millennium-Takeda, what Boston/Cambridge offers is a critical mass of talent and people. Those working in the area have sufficient opportunities to move to new companies and positions, that it’s not a major career risk to move to the area. There’s also a lot of early stage infrastructure such as the Novartis Institute of Biomedical Research that bridges the gap between basic research and early stage commercial development.
- Geographic Location. Finally, what stands out for me is the excellent location that Boston has. You can easily reach New York’s investors and analysts, Washington Policy Makers or New Jersey big pharma without too much difficulty. At the same time, Boston is easily accessible for European companies, and the travel time to London can be less than going to the West Coast.
Pfizer recently announced further R&D investment in the Longwood Medical area, Harvard are building a new science campus in Allston and Vertex recently broke ground on a new headquarters in the South Boston innovation district.
For biotechnology companies at all stages of development there are a lot of opportunities in the Boston/Cambridge area.
At the recent ARVO meeting, one of the symposia that I live tweeted from was on “Nanotechnology for Drug and Gene Delivery.” During his presentation on “Nanomedicines: From Bench to Bedside” Vladimir Torchilin from Northeastern described how nanotechnology can use methods from other scientific disciplines including layer-by-layer (LbL) polymer chemistry.
Which leads me into an interesting paper that came across my desk from Zhiyong Poon and colleagues at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT.
In their paper published online on April 23, 2011 in ACS Nano. they describe how nanoparticles with a pH-sheddable layer can be used to target tumor hypoxia.
In other words, the nanoparticle can travel in the blood to the tumor, then in the changed acidity and pH of the tumor microenvironment, the outer stealth layer is eroded and shedded, exposing another layer of the nanoparticle that delivers drug to the target hypoxic tumor region.
Image Source: ACS Nano. The author’s conclusion is that “this concept for tumor targeting is potentially valid for a broad range of cancers, with applicability for therapies that target hypoxic tumor tissue.”
This proof of principle research is further progress towards the development of nanomedicines in oncology.
Poon, Z., Chang, D., Zhao, X., & Hammond, P. (2011). Layer-by-Layer Nanoparticles with a pH-Sheddable Layer for Targeting of Tumor Hypoxia ACS Nano DOI: 10.1021/nn200876f