Two distinct but complementary types of research produce medical innovation: basic science in academic labs and applied work by private sector companies, Rockefeller President Marc Tessier-Lavigne told members of a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on July 17. Increased federal funding for basic science and targeted structural improvements could strengthen, but would not redefine, this system, he said. He emphasized the importance of efforts to facilitate better connections between the two types of research.
“It’s really about that interface, about how to ensure that discoveries in academia don’t lie fallow, that the pharmaceutical industry recognizes and develops them,” Tessier-Lavigne said. “What we are not going to see is a change where industry does the majority of the basic research or academia produces the majority of the drugs, but what we can really help with is that interface.”
Speaking at a hearing on public versus private contributions to such breakthroughs, Tessier-Lavigne explained the ecosystem responsible for taking a biological insight on, for example, how tumors spread, and turning it into a treatment that improves or saves lives. He also offered suggestions for how the federal government could further encourage such breakthroughs.
Given the set roles for the two major players in this ecosystem, there is no substitute for strong federal financial support for basic science in academia, he told the House Subcommittee on Research and Technology. Beyond supporting the research sector, government must also continue to address important structural issues to ensure our country is attractive to private sector investment.
“Key requirements include sufficient protections of intellectual property, tax policies that favor R&D investments, and support of STEM education to provide a highly trained workforce,” he said.
As president of Rockefeller, and former chief scientific officer at the biotechnology company Genentech, Tessier-Lavigne brings perspective from both sides. He noted that two additional entities also contribute: disease foundations and small biotech companies, which can help move insights generated in academic labs toward the private sector.
In this system, the odds don’t favor success for any individual discovery, Tessier-Lavigne told the subcommittee. Out of 24 drug discovery projects initiated by industry, only one will ultimately lead to an approved drug in the marketplace, he said, and the process can take, on average, 10 to 15 years and an investment of more than $1 billion. Nonetheless, the system has been successful. Approximately half of all new drugs today are discovered in the United States, he said.
He joined fellow panelists Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute; Jay Keasling, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center; and Craig Venter, who contributed to the first draft human genome and the construction of the first synthetic bacterial cell. The panelists addressed Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Indiana), Ranking Minority Member Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Illinois) and other members.
Concern about federal funding for research surfaced repeatedly. Varmus noted that the National Institutes of Health has lost 25 percent of its purchasing power over the last decade, and is able to support less than one in seven grant applications.
Reductions in federal support have weakened the innovation ecosystem in the United States, Tessier-Lavigne said, pushing some researchers to move abroad with industry in danger of following. “Countries in Asia like China and South Korea, as well as in Europe, are investing to become new epicenters of biomedicine. And they are succeeding,” he said.
“We now find ourselves at a time of huge medical need—but also enormous scientific and economic opportunity,” Tessier-Lavigne concluded in his statement to the subcommittee. “To retain its preeminence in this golden age of biomedicine, the United States must pursue the necessary investments and structural policies.”