Four of UC San Diego’s premier scientists – Larry Goldstein, Nicholas Spitzer, Shu Chien, and Larry Smarr – took an international audience on a journey into the future of life science innovation at a June 22 “Catch the Next Big Wave with UCSD Technology Transfer Office” symposium.
The event was held to coincide with the 2014 BIO International Convention in San Diego. In her welcoming remarks to the visiting delegates, Jane Moores, Ph.D., Assistant Vice Chancellor for Technology Transfer, said that the panel presentations would show that “biomedical innovation flourishes when we bring together the best minds from across disciplines.”
The four faculty presentations were introduced by Robert C. Dynes, Ph.D., University of California President Emeritus. Dynes told the audience that he left AT&T Bell Labs for UC San Diego when he realized that “American universities would have to take primary responsibility for stewardship of the nation’s long-range vision and intellectual property.” And he said the era of research and development ended on September 11, 2001 when emergency responders perished because, without access to wireless communication devices, “they never got word that they were running out of time.”
That day “opened a new era of R, D, & D – research, development, and delivery,” said Dynes. “We can no longer afford the luxury of handing off those responsibilities to somebody else. We have to move discoveries from the bench to the public domain as efficiently and effectively and quickly as possible.”
Larry Goldstein, Ph.D., Director of the UC San Diego Stem Cell Program, described how stem cell science has generated “disease-in-a-dish” tools to replicate complex disorders outside the human body and scrutinize their molecular structure. In neuronal studies of Alzheimer’s disease, “what’s remarkable is that we can see very simple early biochemical changes,” Goldstein said, “and elucidate what the biochemical steps are” in disease progression. Such findings are guiding efforts to screen drug compounds and have produced “really interesting hits that you wouldn’t have found by drug testing means pharmaceutical companies conventionally use,” he added.
Stem cell science also holds the promise of growing healthy cells to repair or replace ravaged cells. A Phase 1 clinical trial at UCSD’s Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center, which Goldstein also directs, has shown preliminary evidence that when stem cells are implanted near spinal cord injuries, “they will grow across the injury site and establish contact above and below the injury.”
Nicholas Spitzer, Ph.D., Co-Director of the UCSD Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind, showed how emerging neurotechnology may accelerate treatments for a host of neurological disorders, from depression to Parkinson’s disease, where malfunctioning neural synapses disrupt normal brain functions. The field’s vast potential has galvanized the White House, which has invested $100 million in the BRAIN (Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnology) Initiative. And in California, Gov. Jerry Brown launched a $2 million Cal-BRAIN (California Blueprint for Research to Advance Innovations in Neuroscience) research grants program when he signed the state budget in San Diego on June 21.
Neurotechnology advances are coming about, Spitzer said, because “we put engineers and neuroscientists in the same room, lock the door, wait for the white smoke to come out, and see what can happen.” San Diego’s regional biotech hub is uniquely poised to lead the field, he said: “Innovative neurotechnology will be developed here, companies will be founded here, and students will be cross-trained in engineering and neuroscience so they can bridge the divide.”
Shu Chien, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the UCSD Institute of Engineering in Medicine, outlined a range of therapeutic breakthroughs that have been engineered with precision to solve treatment challenges and develop personalized medicine approaches. These include: delivering nanoparticles with drug payloads to specific sites without triggering immune rejection; an ultra-thin device for monitoring EEG activity in pregnant women and infants “non-invasively and very effectively”; and advanced robotic surgery that “improves the accuracy of operations to remove complex tumors without damaging surrounding nerves.”
Chien addressed the societal impacts of life science innovation, particularly for reining in health care costs. Thanks in part to advances made in San Diego, the cost of sequencing a human genome has plummeted from $95.2 million in 2001 to below $1,000 in 2014. The ultimate goal, he said, should be “individualized preventive medicine that is less infrastructure-dependent, more patient-orientated, and more cost-effective.”
Larry Smarr, Ph.D., founding Director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, surveyed the high-tech landscape of the “quantified self” movement. Wireless wearable health monitoring devices are giving health care consumers “the tools to become a real partner with your doctor,” he said. “Something you must learn to say is, ‘Give me my data.’”
Using himself as a research subject, Smarr collected and charted his personal health data, and his findings guided him to a diagnosis of his own inflammatory bowel disease. The life-altering experience has made him a global advocate for greater attention to the human microbiome and the biology of human gut bacteria. Smarr predicted that, where contemporary medicine talks of combating disease, future medicine will “get rid of the war metaphor and talk about gardening” and move its focus “from pharmaceuticals to medicinal foods.”
The overall lesson of the symposium was conveyed by Chien when he said, “With all of us working together, we can not only catch the big wave, we can make the big wave.”