Could Connecticut become the Silicon Valley of genomics and personalized medicine?
Scientists worldwide have long been well aware of the work done by Connecticut researchers on the human genome – the dizzyingly complex blueprint of life.
But now, even those who stumbled through high school science class have realized the potential of genomics for turning the state into a hub for research and businesses.
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 healthcare breakthroughs.
"This is an extraordinarily promising development," said Fred Carstensen, director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis at the University of Connecticut. "It's the cluster effect. You get a work force that is skilled in the kinds of things that you need."
The partnership between UConn and Jackson, he said, is a win for each. It gives Jackson more power to recruit high-level researchers who also want an academic post, and UConn "can leverage its position with Jackson" to recruit new faculty.
When the state announced last year that Maine-based Jackson Laboratory planned to build a $1.1 billion research facility on UConn's campus, it generated excitement in scientific circles. The possible spinoff effect – something like 6,600 jobs in the next 20 years, including everyone from scientists to engineers to chefs – sent ripples through other industries.
Earlier this month, 46 scientists from UConn and Jackson met over two days to discuss their work in genomics. At the end of the two-day symposium, UConn provost Mon Choi said the event provided "momentum -- to do something really big."
Exactly how big remains to be seen, but plenty of optimistic predictions have been ventured about what Jackson's arrival in the state and its partnership with UConn will mean for either the advancement of healthcare or the economics of Connecticut. Carstensen is betting beyond big – he thinks the impact could be huge.
"If Apple opened a research campus in Connecticut, lots of software companies would come here," Carstensen said. "They want to listen in on the keyhole, as it were."
Having Jackson Laboratory here, he said, will result in an environment in which researchers would build off each others work, create new entities and multiply. He said it would create a dynamic comparable to Silicon Valley, where "someone from Google talks to Twitter and together they create a new company."
He points to Alexion Pharmaceuticals, which announced in June its move from Cheshire to New Haven partly to work more closely with Yale. As part of the move, the company will add up to 300 jobs, nearly double its current workforce.
"This is genome research, so you'll have intellectual property research," Carstensen said. For instance, if Jackson researchers develop a genetically targeted therapy -- "to commercialize it, you spin it off" –- Jackson would probably not do it themselves. "So a company will locate somewhere in central Connecticut -- Middletown, perhaps or Meriden -- which will take that intellectual property and build a business," he said.
Others aren't as enthusiastic.
Mark Guyer, deputy director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, said he's impressed with much of the work that's been done at Yale, UConn and in the private sector. But, he added: "I wouldn't call Connecticut a hotbed" of genomics research. As far as it emerging as a genomics equivalent of Silicon Valley, Guyer said he doubts that's going to happen here or anywhere else.
"In some ways, genomics is a different kind of science," he said. "It requires a strategic approach of lots of technologies that can be applied in lots of fields of research." So it's unlikely that genomics research will be concentrated to any specific geography, he said.
More than just satisfying scientific curiosity, unlocking the mysteries of the genome promises a revolution in healthcare. It's considered the key to personalized medicine in which patients will have a better understanding of their risks for certain diseases and in which doctors can precisely and quickly diagnose ailments and know what treatments will work best for them.
There are about 20,000 protein-coding genes in the human genome and about 3 billion base pairs (the rungs in the DNA double helix). To complicate things further, the nuanced ways that those genes interact with each other differ with each person. Each genome is a sort of manual to its owner's life, albeit a very complicated one. The clearer picture that scientists get of the genome, the greater the benefits the medical world will reap from it.
Because every person is genetically different, how they respond to the same treatment also differs. In cancer, the diagnostic tools doctors use now – considering a patient's symptoms, location of a tumor, how its cells appear under a microscope -- are blunt instruments compared to gene sequencing. Rather than treating the cell type of a tumor, drugs will be targeting the specific gene mutations in a patient.
Ideally, the field will advance to a point where genome mapping will become so accurate, fast and cheap that doctors will request that a lab perform a complete mapping of a patient's genome. And from that data, they'll make a precise diagnosis of their ailment and the best way to treat it.
"On a time scale, 20 years out, I think it'll be huge," Guyer said. And in three or four years from now, he said, this use of genomics will make a major impact in the diagnosing and treatment of certain cancers.
"It's not yet cheap enough or accurate enough to be used routinely by the average clinician," he said.
At Yale-New Haven's Smilow Cancer Hospital, the genomes of some patients' tumors are being sequenced. Currently they're sequencing for seven specific genes; in a year, it will be 460 genes and eventually the entire genome. Even sequencing just the seven genes has proven invaluable, said Thomas Lynch, physician-in-chief of Smilow.
"You learn what type of lung cancer it is and see what genes are driving this lung cancer," Lynch said. "And that's really important. If, in lung cancer, I find out that it's driven by an epidermal growth factor receptor, I'll do a completely different treatment."
Without gene sequencing, he said, treatment is often trial-and-error, a process that can be agonizing and time-consuming – usually for diseases where time plays a huge factor.
"I think this approach is going to revolutionize cancer care," Lynch said. "We are right now very much at the breaking point of doing this. It's literally happening as we speak."
Putting Connecticut on the Genomic Map
Carolyn Slayman, a Yale professor of genetics, said she hopes that genomics researchers in the state follow the kinds of collaborations that stem cell scientists at Yale, UConn and Wesleyan universities have made.
"I don't think we're there yet in genomics," she said. "It's a matter of saying 'Lets make time to meet together to have research conferences together, to visit each other.' It can't all happen by email. The distances are not great."
Slayman said researchers in the state "have the potential and the will" to make Connecticut a hub of genomics science.
"We have work to do to put the pieces together," she said. "We're not California, we're not Massachusetts, but I think we're really on the map."
So how did Connecticut get on the genome map in the first place?
"I guess I would trace it back to Jonathan Rothberg," said Paul Pescatello, CEO of CURE, a network organization for bioscience in Connecticut. The Connecticut native founded CuraGen, one of the first genomics companies, while a grad student at Yale in 1991. He later founded 454 Life Sciences in Branford and then the Ion Torrent, based in Guilford, where he lives. The two small companies are responsible for some of the biggest advancements in genomics, including the aforementioned Neanderthal genome mapping, and of the first living person (specifically, James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA).
Rothberg, a lifelong Connecticut resident, proudly notes that most of the development side of his business is done in Guilford. But to commercialize his work and distribute it internationally, Rothberg said, he had to sell Ion Torrent last year to a California company, Life Technologies.
"I think 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 in Connecticut, as opposed to going to Boston, San Diego or San Francisco. We have to make sure that when the top of our class graduate, they don't automatically figure that they're moving."
Mark Lalande, director of UConn's Stem Cell Institute, says Rothberg's charge that the state can't keep its talent is accurate – for now.
"That's a fair assessment, because there's so much competition and genomics is such a huge enterprise that there's a lot of opportunities," he said. "But given state support and investments by Jackson Labs, UConn and Yale, I think here will be a lot of career opportunities created here."
UConn has committed to hiring a few hundred new faculty members over the next few years, he said, and up to 20 of them could be in the genomics field.
"You want to train people who are going to stay in Connecticut," he said. "If we build this as planned we will keep many of our best and brightest."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times