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Treasure Map

Treasure Map

New Haven has been making significant contributions to medical science for more than two centuries, and now it’s poised to become a powerhouse in one of the fastest-growing segments of medicine: gene-mapping.

The local celebrities in New Haven are not professional athletes (alas, we don’t have any professional sports teams), high-falutin’ society folk (thank goodness) or glamorous movie stars (oh well). They are brainiacs, because what we do have is brain power, and a hell of a lot of it. With six universities within its 20 square miles just for starters, the rock stars of our little part of the planet are the thinkers, inventors, scientists and dreamers whose intellect and passion for their life’s work make a difference not just in our cozy community, but far beyond.

Their intellectual labors bear fruit in many areas and industries, but have been particularly abundant in the world of science and medicine. The sheer number of medical breakthroughs and discoveries that have emerged from Yale and other labs tucked away in New Haven, on the shoreline and in other suburbs is not only impressive, but is also responsible for an increasingly important part of our economy— the biotechnology industry.

Many of the industry’s branches have roots at Yale, where over the last century some of the most important medical breakthroughs have occurred: the first X-ray in the U.S. in 1896, followed by chemotherapy, melatonin, the “morning-after” birth control pill and the first antiviral drug. Lyme disease was identified and named at Yale, and the first insulin pump for diabetes was produced there. The HIV drug Zerit, one of the first biotech drugs, was developed in a Yale lab in the 90s and was part of a three drug “cocktail” that extended the lives of many tens of thousands of people with HIV/AIDS worldwide

Biotech: The Basics

While Yale no doubt will continue to be on the leading edge of medicine, many believe the next medical revolution will come out of the bioscience industry.

“It’s the next wave of medicine,” sums up Jonathan Rothberg, who has a doctorate in biology from Yale and who has founded several biotechnology companies, including CuraGen, one of the first companies to develop drugs based on genomics. “Biotech is based on an understanding of human biology and of the human genome. It gives us the ability to replace things we may be missing or to block biological processes that are leading to disease. Through these advances we are much better equipped to diagnose and subsequently treat all forms of disease.”

The diagnostic side is being driven by genomic research—the ability to read the human genome, gene by gene. Gene sequencing is a much more effective way of understanding disease compared to the older suite of tools available to physicians like MRIs, CT scans and examining cells under microscopes.

“You have much better diagnostics when you use biotechnol ogy,” says Rothberg. “Instead of looking at the body, we can now read the genome. We are at a tipping point and over the next 10 years we will be designing drugs that will be even more precise. That’s a big part of the challenge.”

The tools on the treatment side of the equation have also grown more precise. Now, rather than treating the larger tumor, the genome of a certain cancer can be read, its specific gene mutations presenting a blueprint of the cancer that allows physicians to target the gene specifically. In other words, doctors are using laser-like bullets rather than scattered buckshot.

The science is also allowing the creation of a new generation of drugs, like the ones soon to come out of New Haven’s Rib-X Pharmaceuticals. Using research by Yale scientist Tom Steitz (for which he won a 2009 Nobel Prize) that deciphered the structure of a ribosome—the protein-making engine of all things—the company is working on developing new antibiotics able to fight previously drug-resistant (and often fatal) infections like MRSA.

All in all, the biotech industry “Is making medicine more precise and personal,” says Rothberg. “We can now treat just the tumor and not affect the good cells.”

Without gene sequencing, according to Thomas Lynch, physician-in-chief of Smilow Cancer Hospital, part of Yale-New Haven Hospital, treatment is often trialand-error, a process that can be agonizing and time-consuming. “I think this approach is going to revolutionize cancer care,” Lynch says. “We are right now very much at the breaking point of doing this. It’s literally happening as we speak.”

Currently, researchers are sequencing for seven specific genes at Smilow. In a year it will be 460, and eventually the entire genome. But even sequencing just the seven genes has proven invaluable, according to Lynch.

From Birth to Booming

The business of biotech is relatively new. The first biotech company, Genentech, was founded in 1976 and revolutionized the industry by inventing new treatments created from genetically engineered copies of naturally occurring molecules. And now, 36 years later, the industry has reached the point the computer industry was at when it transitioned from mainframes to PCs.

“The promise of the science has really come true,” says Mark Leuchtenberger, president and CEO of Rib-X. “The most powerful drugs and those with the most impact have come out of biotech.”

“We are starting to see the technology move into individual research labs,” adds Chris McLeod, CEO of AxioMx, a Branford company that is developing a synthetic molecule designed to more quickly and less expensively identify damaged antibodies, which is the key to determining which medicines will be most effective. “What’s really exciting is how the technology will translate into different affordable and accessible applications,” he says, “just as computer technology has translated from mainframes to iPhones and iPads.”

And it’s happening in our own backyard. Companies like CuraGen and its subsidiary 454 Life Sciences, in Branford, and Ion Torrent in Guilford, also founded by Rothberg, are responsible not only for some of the biggest advancements in genomics, including the mapping of the Neanderthal genome and the first genome-mapping of a living person (specifically, James Watson, codiscoverer of DNA) but also for drastically improving the speed and decreasing the cost of DNA sequencing.

And unlocking the mysteries of the genome will have serious benefits for health care in general. In addition to developing more precise diagnostics and systems of delivery, biotech discoveries could also translate into a reduction in health care costs. With personalized medicine, people will have a better understanding of their risks for certain diseases. “If you want to reduce health-care costs,” says Rothberg, “you have to give the right drug to the right person. This will drastically reduce the economic burden.”

Of the more than 50 biotech firms in Connecticut, 39 are located in Greater New Haven, and 20 of those are in the city itself, according to the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce. Yale School of Medicine is where many of the ideas germinated. But with New Haven’s appealing lifestyle coupled with a nucleus of creative and entrepreneurial people, even individuals and groups without any Yale intellectual property are finding it an attractive place to launch a company.

Becoming a national center of excellence depends on the cluster effect, a phenomenon that is coming into play here. “Once you start getting a lot of creative, smart people in one area they feed off each other. Whether an idea succeeds or fails, it leads to the next idea. This area is a good fertile ground for new companies and new ideas,” says McCleod, who was previously president and CEO of 454 Life Sciences. “The fact that we have two of the three leading DNA sequencing companies here speaks to the fact that we are becoming a key hub in life science research,” he says.

The state of Connecticut is doing its part to attract and keep biotech firms. Connecticut was the third state in the nation to support stem cell research, committing in 2005 $100 million in grants over 10 years for human and embryonic stem cell research. Last year, Maine-based Jackson Laboratory announced its decision to build a $1.1 billion research facility on UConn’s campus. And this summer Governor Dannel Malloy committed $51 million to move Alexion Pharmaceuticals from Cheshire to New Haven, thereby preventing it from leaving the state. As part of the move, the company has said it will add up to 300 jobs, nearly double its current workforce.

Connecticut’s commitment to the industry is not only critical to the industry itself, but also to the state’s economy in general, according to Fred Carstensen, director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis at UConn. He estimates biosciences should contribute upwards of 40,000 new jobs over the next two decades. “Going forward, biosciences are going to be an increasingly important segment of our economy,” he says.

Capitalizing—economically and medically—on the many discoveries sure to be mined from the human genome could mean a serious boost in both jobs and health-care breakthroughs. The key to future success is twofold: First, the state must continue to foster collaboration among Yale, UConn and Wesleyan, the leaders in the biosciences. And second, those institutions need to create programs and incentives to encourage the people with ideas who start their education in New Haven to stay in New Haven.

“It’s great what’s happening here, but I think we have to put in a better mechanism for our best and brightest to stay in Connecticut and start up their own companies here, as opposed to going to Boston, San Diego or San Francisco,” says Rothberg. “We have to grow it organically by creating the companies and building from within. For New Haven and Connecticut to be a hub, we have to create an environment that enables new bio- and hightech companies to start here.”

With additional reporting by William Weir.