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Area high school students learn about the biotech business

More than 150 students from 25 area schools relinquished part of their February vacation to take an intellectual journey through the world of modern drug discovery at the Whitehead Institute.

From February 20-22, they attended a lecture series "Biotechnology: From Bench to Bedside," presented by Dr. Harvey Lodish, Whitehead's resident expert on biotechnology and a leading researcher who has seen many of his own lab's discoveries move to the research and development phase. The students learned how the advent of genetic engineering in the 1970s opened up a new world of drug discovery, and how-within a decade-these technologies also gave birth to the multimillion dollar industry of biotechnology.

"The revolution in molecular genetics has made it possible for biologists to develop new types of drugs consisting of genes or proteins," Dr. Lodish said. "What is more, the time it takes to make the leap from the bench to the bedside is becoming continually shorter." Today, biotechnology can claim credit for many successful drugs in the market, including human growth hormone and erythropoietin, the hormone that triggers production of red blood cells. It also holds the promise of correcting human hereditary disorders. And, as the students learned, it also offers a myriad of career opportunities for young scientists in the future.

On all three days, the students learned about the science and business of biotechnology. In addition, on Tuesday, they toured Whitehead labs to gain insight into the workings of basic science laboratories. On Wednesday, the students toured local biotechnology companies to get an inside look into the workings of industry. And, on Thursday, Dr. Lodish moderated a lively panel discussion on the business of biotechnology. He and representatives from various aspects of biotechnology, including Joan Brugge from ARIAD Pharmaceuticals, Chris Hwang from Genzyme Corp., Michael J. Fox from Astra USA and Keya Stokes from Genetics Institute discussed the processes of drug research and development in biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies and career opportunities in the field.

"Dr. Lodish did an excellent job of keeping me interested in the material," said Ravi Misra from Belmont High School, who was with a group that visited Genzyme Corp. on Wednesday. "The [Genzyme tour] was fascinating... I've always wondered how a company like this worked and it reinforced my [interest] in biochemistry."

The Whitehead Winter Lecture Series for High School Students is part of the Partnership for Science Education at the Whitehead Institute, a multi-faceted program developed in collaboration with local high school teachers and administrators. The program is designed to stimulate students' interest in science and provide high school teachers with the knowledge, skills and motivation necessary to keep pace with advances in basic research.

"We started the winter lecture series to encourage students and teachers to learn about cutting-edge biomedical research," said Dr. Gerald Fink, director of the Whitehead Institute. "But more importantly, we hope to instill in students the same enthusiasm for science that we feel. This is vital to nurture future leaders in science."

The Whitehead Winter Lecture series is sponsored in part by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute of Chevy Chase, MD, The Millipore Foundation in Bedford, MA, and VWR Scientific, Inc., in Westwood, MA.

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