Technology Convergence Stimulates Fresh Perspectives

Triangle Biotech Research Symposium IV: Advancing Human Health Through Technology Convergence
Author: Gabrielle Flora, Associate Director, BioPharma Research Council (BRC)
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          This fall, the BioPharma Research Council (BRC) convened for the fourth time in Research Triangle Park (RTP), North Carolina, for The Triangle Biotech Research Symposium. “The idea behind the Triangle Biotech Research Symposium is to have incredible collaborative minds in one room,” said Marybeth Panagos, Director of Business Development at Kymanox. Started in 2012, the symposium brings together scientists and business professionals to share knowledge and stimulate collaborations in the region.

          This year’s theme, Advancing Human Health through Technology Convergence, brought together research scientists and innovators to delve into the opportunities, advantages, and challenges involved with using new technologies in medicine. This unique symposium provides a platform for scientists to share their successes and lessons learned.

 Paul Mugge

Paul Mugge

          The day’s keynote address was delivered by Paul Mugge, an expert in technology convergence and innovation in business and the life science industries. He is a Professor of Innovation and Executive Director at the Center for Innovation Management Studies at North Carolina State University. Professor Mugge spoke about his recently published book, Traversing the Valley of Death, which emphasizes the importance of nurturing technology convergence and of understanding the common mistakes that researchers and entrepreneurs can encounter when negotiating their way through this new environment.

          “Innovation is the process of converting ideas into legitimate business opportunities,” said Professor Mugge. “All the ideas don’t have to come from within. If you want to do big stuff, bring ideas in from the outside. You may use the ideas in your own core business and markets, but then you may elect to start entirely new markets and spin those ideas out so they can flourish on their own.”

          The explosion of CRISPR-based genome engineering is the reigning example of successful technology convergence. The day’s first panel discussion, The CRISPR Revolution: The Science, Current Applications, & FDA Pathways, was moderated by Marybeth Panagos. The panel featured three CRISPR experts: Rodolphe Barrangou, Ph.D. Associate Professor at North Carolina State University, Bryan Cullen, Ph.D. Director of the Duke Center for Virology, Charles Gersbach, Ph.D. Assistant Professor at Duke University.

          “The use of CRISPR/Cas9 as a potential therapeutic intervention in important viral diseases of humans is not a huge leap of the imagination given that the CRISPR/Cas9 system evolved in bacterias and adapted an immune response to prevent infections by viruses,” said Dr. Cullen, summing up why interest in CRISPR is soaring. Because of the potential implications for therapies to treat various illnesses, CRISPR is one of the fastest growing areas of research.

 Dr. Rodolphe Barrangou

Dr. Rodolphe Barrangou

          “In the case of CRISPR I think it takes the whole world to build the technology,” said Dr. Barrangou. “CRISPR equals genome editing. I cannot think of a more converging field. It really feels like the whole world is merging into the CRISPR space. Now, for the sake of business, one thing that’s interesting is that the CRISPR craze, however much advertised and championed by the scientists and regardless of how much impact it’s had at the scientific level, from a media standpoint it’s even been more compelling. However, regardless of the interest for both the scientists and the media who both have a propensity to some extent to overhype their own work, some of the most interesting and compelling stories about the CRISPR craze lies with business. It’s been very impressive, if not unprecedented, to see at the same time different types of business segments getting to the CRISPR game very quickly.”

 Dr. Frances Ligler

Dr. Frances Ligler

          Much of the day’s content focused on developing the relationship between businesses, organizations, government, and scientists. Dr. Frances Ligler, D.Phil, D.Sc., a Lampe Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, discussed the future of medical progress and clinical research using new technologies during her talk, Technology Convergence to Develop Tissue on Chip Models. Dr. Hawazin Faruki, DrPH. Vice President for Clinical Development at GeneCentric furthered this dialogue in her presentation, Improving Tumor Characterization.

          Rosalina Bray, M.S., CAEP, Director of Research Project Teams at the National Society of Black Engineers Public Policy Special Interest Group, discussed the impact of technology convergence in government policy. Her presentation, Adoption of Technologically Advanced Methods and Public Health Policies, highlighted the importance of confluence between regional governments, business, and organizations involved with technology convergence policy.

          “There’s really been no progress in screening out, in drug development, the potential for a drug to suddenly cause a patient, 1 in 1,000, 1 in 5,000 or more, to turn yellow and die and need a liver transplant. There’s really been no advance whatsoever,” said Dr. Paul Watkins, M.D., Professor at University of North Carolina and Director at the Hamner Institute UNC Institute for Drug Safety Sciences. Dr. Watkins is an expert in drug-induced liver injury, or DILI. Currently, Dr. Watkins’ research focuses on circulating biomarkers by utilizing new DILIsym in silico modeling techniques which might help safely predict liver toxicity.

          Dr. Watkins presented his research during his talk, Converging Technologies: In Silico Approaches to Predicting Drug Induced Liver Injury. “There have been attempts to make in silico, or computer based, models that can inform companies of potential liability,” Dr. Watkins said. “In the FDA’s strategic plan on regulatory science, number three was listed as developing computational methods and in silico modeling, which I think is going to revolutionize every step in drug development. It should now be possible to estimate from serial blood sampling percent hepatocyte death and chance of encountering irreversible liver injury. I can say modeling efforts did convince venture capitalists in going forward with the drug. I think within three years we’re well positioned that when a potential liver safety signal is identified in a clinical trial, I think regulators are going to routinely ask “What did the DILIsym Model Show?”, which is the in silico model that’s being created,” he said.

 Cristy Shaffer

Cristy Shaffer

          One key aspect in making technology convergence a reality is funding. This important cog in the innovation machine was addressed in earnest during a panel discussion titled The Funder’s Role in Nurturing Convergence. Moderated by Deborah Dougherty, Ph.D. Professor in the Management & Global Business Department at Rutgers University, the discussion featured three prominent resources: Christy Shaffer, Ph.D. General Partner for Hatteras Venture Partners, Mary Musaccia, PLLC, Chair of the Board of Directors for First Flight Venture Center, Inc,. and Jay Madan, President and Founder of Innovate BioPharmaceuticals, Inc. 

 Dr. Gabi Hanna

Dr. Gabi Hanna

          In addition, Todd Talarico, Ph.D. Vice President of Process Development and Clinical Manufacturing for Medicago, presented an approach to technology convergence in his talk, Transforming Tobacco, which gave an overview of his company’s efforts to grow antibodies in their Durham-based tobacco greenhouse. Wanona Satcher, CEO of iDrive Change, opened the day, and Dr. Gabi Hanna M.D. Executive Director for Duke Preclinical Translational Research Unit who presented Faster No’s, Accelerated Yes’s, a discussion on research pathways.

          “Innovation is never ever done by a lone genius. Invention, maybe. Innovation is much tougher. It requires people of all skills, backgrounds, nationalities, and genders to do it really well,” said Professor Mugge, an assertion upheld by the attendees at the fourth Triangle Biotech Research Symposium.

          With this in mind, the BRC will continue this series in 2016 on October 20th, exploring the theme of D3D: Data, Drugs, and Diagnostics.
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