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Summit Unites Harvard, Biotech

By Alex L. Pasternack, Crimson Staff Writer

University President Lawrence H. Summers added detail and dimension to his vision of Boston as a mecca for life science research Friday, before an audience of Boston’s biggest business and political leaders.

Along with MIT President Charles M. Vest, Summers discussed how to stimulate the state’s biotech industry and to foster a bustling university-industry collaboration along the lines of Northern California’s Silicon Valley to an audience at the Business School’s Hawes Hall.

In order to better facilitate the movement of technologies from University labs to commercial development, Summers said that Provost Steven E. Hyman would lead an examination into the intellectual property and so-called “tech transfer” policies of the University.

“It is not just an abstraction for science, humanity and the national and global economy, but a reality for the success of our institutions and the success of this area—how we exploit our progress in the life sciences,” Summers said during his speech.

And while he added that the University would be careful not to compromise its academic principles, Summers questioned the sort of caution and conservatism that has typically marked Harvard’s interaction with industry.

“We must be prepared to work cooperatively with the private sector. We must recognize that, and this is why these issues are not easy, that conflict of interest is one side of the coin, and synergy is the other,” he said.

Summers also spoke generally of the need to increase the emphasis on science across the University, including at schools where science is not traditionally part of the curriculum, like Harvard Law School. He referenced existing plans to expand Harvard’s engineering and applied sciences division, where marketable technologies are often born.

Despite the conference’s location, across the river in Allston, Summers did not explicitly mention planning for Harvard’s campus of the future to be built there. A leading option for the land involves building science facilities, and the possibility of a corporate science park on or abutting University land has been discussed in the past.

University Professor Michael Porter, the star economist who Summers tapped to organize the event, said that—despite Massachusetts’ pre-eminence in the life sciences—government, universities and companies need to better leverage their expertise at a time when other regions are feverishly seeking to attract biotech development.

“We don’t have to claw our way to the top,” Porter said. “Our task is to preserve our leadership.”

Porter drew attention to a number of drawbacks hindering business growth in Massachusetts, including the high cost of living and doing business, as well as difficulties in getting state approval for new infrastructure.

Unlike 41 other states, Massachusetts does not yet have an official life sciences initiative, but Porter said that the region’s “pre-eminent” cluster of institutions and private industry could serve as a springboard for growth.

Porter, who is an unofficial advisor to the state’s governor and has spent much of his career studying such clusters, said that Massachusetts could gain as many as 100,000 jobs in the life sciences sector if it better exploited its concentration of expertise.

While much of the summit’s language was general, some debate lingered over the particular roles that government should play in affecting growth in the biotech sector.

Aside from loosening regulations related to site construction, Porter said Massachusetts could attract more companies to the area by aiding small firms directly with funds from the federal settlement with tobacco companies.

Robert Posen, the head of the state’s Office Commerce and Labor, told the audience during his presentation that the state continues to reserve deep tax cuts for manufacturers despite budget woes.

Throughout a discussion period at the end of the summit, industry leaders pointed to misunderstandings between university labs and the companies that license the labs’ technologies. In particular, they expressed skepticism over the readiness of university-developed technologies for the commercial market, and the efficiency of the sale process.

“The tech transfer process is a very labor-intensive one,” explained Joyce Brinton, Harvard’s director of Office Technologies and Trademark Licensing. “Our outreach to companies is less than optimal.”

Responding to criticism over the sluggish progress of clinical trials in University labs, Harvard Medical School (HMS) Dean Joseph B. Martin pointed to a number of speed bumps, including a lack of collaboration between scientists, doctors and administrators.

“At the Med school, you can always find someone working on almost anything in the realm of science,” he said during his talk. “The problem is to get the people at HMS to work together.”

Hyman said after the conference that Harvard had to improve its interactions with industry, but that HMS would likely continue to avoid late stage clinical trials—which are needed by companies for federal approval—because they have little academic value.

“I don’t want us to become basically a clinical trial mill,” he said. “Yes, we should do clinical trials, especially design stage trials and also larger ones where we have real intellectual control and input. But what I’m skeptical of is really wanting to be a place where industry can cheaply and efficiently do its clinical trials.”

He added that concerns over conflicts of interest should remain at the front of every researcher’s mind, especially in light of the death of a human test subject at the University of Pennsylvania in 2000.

“We never should put human beings at risk in a conflicted situation,” he said. “We need to make sure that when we’re engaged in clinical trials nobody thinks the outcome is driven by economics.”

An internal study of conflict of interest at HMS is currently underway, but no policy change is likely to be announced this year, Martin said.

—Stephen M. Marks contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Alex L. Pasternack can be reached at apastern@fas.harvard.edu

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