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Viewpoint: Biotech research presents a major opportunity for Mass. economy

This article is reprinted with permission from the Boston Sunday Globe of Aug. 11.

Last year scientists dumped a huge list of parts on the table. It is called the human genome, a catalogue and guide to the chemical parts in a human cell. The development of this list was a crowning achievement of a half-century of biological science that followed the discovery of the structure of DNA. Nonetheless, the human genome is essentially just that - a parts list. Molecular biologists have discovered a great deal about how many of the individual parts function.

Now work must begin on the search for understanding how this vast array is connected, how the parts interact, how they change dynamically, and the nature of their three-dimensional structure. And we must learn how diseases come about when one or more of these parts are missing, added or flawed, and what interventions will prevent or cure these diseases.

We should care about this search because it will satisfy much of our deep human curiosity about what we are made of and how we work. We should care about this search because it has profound significance for our future health. Here in Massachusetts, we should care also because jobs and the economic vitality of this region are at stake.

The fact is that the search to understand our molecular machines and cell circuitry - how the parts are connected and how they operate - will initiate a revolution in life science. Until now, modern biology has been a reductionist science, that is, we have learned more and more about the detailed structure of molecular components of life. Now, suddenly, much of biology will become a systems science.

Indeed, the language of biology is rapidly becoming the language of systems engineering. The work of biologists, computer scientists, and engineers from many disciplines is merging to perform precise measurements, monitor complex processes at blinding speed, analyze vast amounts of data, and understand biological systems of unprecedented complexity. In time we will create computer models that will predict biological behavior and discover effective drugs, bypassing much of the arduous and costly experimentation with animals and early-stage testing on humans. A new profession, biological engineering, is being created for this quest and for the medical advances that will follow.

The stage was set when Eric Lander and his team at the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research sequenced the largest portion of the human genome. The biology departments at MIT, Harvard, and other leading Boston-area universities have contributed vast amounts of the underlying science. Our great academic hospitals have been at the forefront of life science and have advanced the practice of medicine based on cellular and genetic biology. MIT's new Division of Biological Engineering is generating basic knowledge and technology to establish computational and systems biology, and is educating its future leaders.

There is an extraordinary concentration of today's biotech industry in Massachusetts, with 275 companies in the state - 54 of them within a mile of the MIT campus. The big pharmaceutical companies are establishing a huge research and development presence here. Most notably, a few weeks ago Novartis announced it would create a biomedical research institute in Cambridge that within a few years will employ nearly 1,000 professionals and many more staff workers.

We are at the center of action in the emerging world of systems biology. The future is ours.

But wait - we've seen this movie before. We were once the center of the computer industry. MIT and its Lincoln Laboratory spawned the minicomputer. Digital Equipment Corp. became the epicenter of technological entrepreneurship. Companies and jobs grew around Route 128, and the Massachusetts Miracle occurred.

And then, we largely missed the fundamental transformation brought about by the "silicon revolution" of the microprocessor. The Massachusetts computer industry struggled, sputtered, and spiraled downward while Silicon Valley was born and the industry, jobs, and hot economy moved to California.

History need not repeat itself. Opportunity will flow from the fusion of life science and engineering at MIT to create the new computational and systems biology.

Boston must seize this opportunity and live up to its name as the Hub - not a spoke - of the next-generation biotechnology industry. Our universities and hospitals are uniquely capable of catalyzing and driving this revolution. But our business and financial communities and our philanthropists must fuel it, and our civic leaders and our schools must follow through.

We need a strong sense of common purpose. We need old-fashioned community spirit. We need constant interaction and collective excellence. We need synergy. We need to build companies, each of which is the best at what it does, but among which expertise and innovation flow at lightning speed.

Our world-class universities and hospitals can and will lead the scientific revolution. But the companies, jobs, and economy can grow here, or they can flow elsewhere. This time, let's be nimble and committed to grow them here. Now is the time to start.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 28, 2002.

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