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Study examines impact of MIT biotech research

MIT has traced the effects of government-funded research at the Institute in the 20-year-old biotechnology industry, and found that the university-government-biotech partnership has been very fruitful indeed.

The study, "MIT, the Federal Government and the Biotechnology Industry: A Successful Partnership," was released Monday. It shows that:

  • Five MIT professors have won the Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology since 1968 for basic discoveries that have been of fundamental importance to biotechnology.
  • Nine of the top 10 best-selling biotech drugs in 1994 were developed by three companies that were founded or co-founded by MIT alumni or faculty. These drugs treat heart attacks; cancer; leukemia; viruses; infections from chemotherapy, infectious diseases and AZT treatment of AIDS; anemia; diabetes; hepatitis; growth hormone deficiency; Kaposi's sarcoma, and other diseases.
  • 45 biotechnology companies in the United States are MIT-related-they were founded or co-founded by MIT alumni or faculty, or they have licensed technology patented by MIT. These companies employ nearly 10,000 people and produce aggregate annual revenues of $3 billion, almost a quarter of the total annual revenues ($12.7 billion) of all US biotechnology companies.
  • 30 biotech companies founded in Massachusetts are MIT-related. They have created more than 3,200 jobs and had annual revenues of $520 million in 1994.
  • Massachusetts, with its high concentration of research institutions, has 155 biotech companies, the second-largest concentration of biotechnology firms in the country.
  • The government awards 30 to 40 biotechnology patents to MIT each year.
  • More than 100 license agreements have been negotiated between MIT and biotechnology companies since 1986. These licensee companies have attracted more than $630 million in development capital and employ 1,200 people.

"The nation's research universities have been engaged in a unique partnership with the federal government since the Second World War," the study said.

"The government sponsors basic scientific research in academia totaling some $12 billion annually. The `return' on this investment is manifold and profound: federally funded research advances the scientific and technological base of the nation; it educates and trains future engineers, scientists and managers; it produces remarkable achievements in medicine and health care, and it spawns thousands of high tech start-up companies which build industries and strengthen the nation's economy," the study said.

"The federal government is the largest source of funding for biotechnology-related research at MIT. It is the engine that drives scientific discovery and technology development in biotechnology in MIT labs, and ultimately, in the larger biotechnology industry.

"Of the approximately $85 million in research that is conducted annually in the life sciences at MIT, about $75 million, or 88 percent, is federally sponsored. A considerable portion of that federally funded research-approximately $43 million in 1995, supporting 138 research projects-is done in the MIT Biology Department, the MIT Center for Cancer Research and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and is directly applicable to biotechnology. Primary funding agencies include the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation."

MIT scientists have done pioneering work in molecular biology and genetic engineering, the basis of biotechnology, and in closely related fields such as immunology, virology and genetics. They:

--made major contributions to the elucidation of the genetic code, the "blueprint" of life, and to our understanding of the structure and functions of genes, the framework out of which biotechnology developed.

--were instrumental in the development of recombinant DNA technology, the basis of genetic engineering.

--contributed fundamentally to the development of the second generation of the biotechnology revolution-gene therapy-for treating diseases at the genetic level.

Scientists from MIT and the MIT-affiliated Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research are leaders in new and cutting-edge areas of biological research with direct applications to biotechnology, such as human genome research, structural biology and tumor suppresser genes. They:

--were key contributors in the identification of the genes responsible for Huntington's Disease and Lou Gehrig's Disease.

--identified the first tumor suppresser gene, a vital step in the battle against cancer.

--have shed new light on the genetic basis of cancer and created novel vaccine strategies for cancer and AIDS.

The study, done by Institute research staff, said, "Biotechnology has been called the next industrial revolution. By the year 2000, just 25 years after its inception, it is estimated that biotechnology will be a $30 billion-$50 billion industry, employing 200,000 people in more than 1,000 companies in the United States. It has emerged as a key industry that strengthens US competitiveness in an increasingly global economy, with applications in pharmaceuticals, environmental technology, energy, advanced materials, agriculture and other sectors.

"The development of the US biotechnology industry is the result of a partnership of universities, the federal government and biotechnology companies. The government provides crucial funding for basic biological research in universities, approving research proposals based on scientific merit and peer review. University research, in turn, provides the scientific basis for the development of life-saving medical products by biotechnology companies.

"As a potential new economic engine for the country and as a source of medical advances, biotechnology may be essential to the economic vitality and physical well-being of the next generation of Americans.

"MIT has had a profound impact on the biotechnology industry and continues to lead it forward in many dimensions."

MIT educates and trains future scientists, engineers and managers in biotechnology, advances the scientific and technological base of the nation, and spawns biotechnology companies which have become industry leaders as well as leading-edge niche market specialists, the report said.

"The intellectual vigor and scientific excellence of MIT's graduating students and research scientists play a vital role in the biotechnology industry. From the ranks of the Biology Department's 20-25 yearly PhD graduates and nearly 150 postdoctoral research scientists, and from other MIT departments and schools a skilled pool of biologists, chemists, biochemists, process engineers and others brings advanced knowledge and training to US biotechnology companies.

"MIT's influence on biotechnology companies is felt in management as well; graduates of the Sloan School of Management hold senior management positions in many Massachusetts and national biotechnology companies," the study said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 24, 1996.

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