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Universities need to be nimble leaders to sustain local biotech boom, Vest says

MIT, Harvard and other local universities have important roles to play to prevent the biotech boom from ending up like the Massachusetts Miracle, which fizzled when the local computer industry missed out on the silicon revolution of the microprocessor.

"The fruits of systems biology and genomic medicine should be harvested here," MIT President Charles M. Vest told 100 senior representatives of Massachusetts pharmaceutical companies, universities, biotech companies, health providers, service organizations and government agencies at a life sciences summit held at Harvard Business School on Sept. 12.

The Massachusetts Biotechnology Council and The Boston Consulting Group predicted in a recent report that if the state's political, business and academic leadership plays its cards right, by 2010 the industry could generate nearly 100,000 local jobs and raise more than $1 billion in tax revenues. Although the Commonwealth is home to 275 biotechnology firms, Massachusetts faces growing competition for jobs from other states.

"The key features of university leadership of the next generation of life science and medicine are bright people, nimble organizations that can integrate disciplines and restructure as required, competition and cooperation, and money to build the infrastructure and support the people," Vest said.

Eric S. Lander, founder and director of the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genome Research, director of the newly established Eli and Edythe L. Broad Institute and professor of biology at MIT, said that the human genome, like the periodic table of elements, created a finite list of nature's fundamental building blocks. The goal now is to use that resource to garner new understanding of the mechanisms of disease and to target therapies at the causes, not just the symptoms, of human disease. "The information is written there and it can be read out," he said. The hope is that this massive library of information, coupled with the latest computing power, will shorten the amount of time needed to identify and analyze genetic causes of diseases and come up with ways to treat and prevent them.

In opening remarks for the daylong summit, Harvard President Larry Summers said Harvard will have to place a greater emphasis on science and technology "in everything we do"--including creating strong interactions and collaborations with the private sector, something the university has shied away from in the past. "I am convinced that if we are to be successful in maximizing our opportunity to advance basic science, and for our work in the laboratories to have maximum impact, we must be prepared to work cooperatively with the private sector," he said.

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