Friday, April 28, 2017

Hub of the biotech universe

Since the city’s founding in 1630, Boston has tended to have a healthy self-regard for itself. The first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Puritan leader John Winthrop, quoted scripture from the book of Matthew: “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” Boston, of course, played a seminal role in the Revolutionary War, and a half-century later the city had acquired the moniker the “Athens of America” for its high-brow culture. In the decades leading to the Civil War, Boston was a hotbed of abolitionists. And long after it became clear that New York was the nation’s dominant city, Boston continued the facetious conceit, coined by Oliver Wendell Holmes, that Boston was the “Hub of the Universe.” Yet by the 1920s, the city was somewhat of a backwater, and it wasn’t until several  decades later that Boston and Cambridge began to benefit from the very bright men and women who were educated at MIT, Harvard and other area colleges and universities.
These days, the Boston area is a mecca for medical research and drug development, including neurological diseases, Alzheimer’s among them. Boston Globe reporter Robert Weisman, who specializes in health care and biotechnology, noted that Boston recently hosted more than 10,000 scientists and doctors in a convention devoted to neurological disorders. One is Cambridge-based Biogen, among the oldest and largest biotech companies.
At the other end of the spectrum, the startup Alzheon, based in Framingham, about twenty miles west of Boston, this week announced a breakthrough. Its press release declared, “Alzheon Scientists Discover Novel Therapeutic Mechanism of Inhibition of Formation of Toxic Beta Amyloid Oligomers, Key Driver of Alzheimer’s Disease Pathogenesis.” If you have little idea what oligomers are, join the club. The gist of the press release is that Alzheon researchers believe they have a fresh slant to combat amyloid plaque, one of the two major components of Alzheimer’s. (The other is tau, which manifests itself as tangles.)
Weisman, the Globe reporter, quoted Paul Bolno, who previously worked for GlaxoSmithKlein. “The biotechs are moving the science forward.…There was a mass exodus of pharma companies like ours. The large companies are now on the sidelines trying to get back in.” Is it likely that Alzeon will receive significant backing? I would assume so.  The closest we’ve come to something resembling a breakthrough was this past October, when clinical trials suggested, that Ely Lilly’s drug candidate was capable of slowing down the pace of Alzheimer’s. There was no expectation that Ely Lilly could stop Alzheimer’s in its tracks, but slowing down the disease would have been a singular accomplishment in itself.
Should my cohorts and I accept the likelihood that our generation of people with early-onset Alzheimer’s will not be saved by some wonder drug? The odds of any of us who already are manifesting symptoms of the disease are not particularly encouraging, but we live in an era in which researchers are much more informed about the powers of the brain, and just being persistently optimistic may be a decent stratagem to maximize one’s years of cogency. I’ve never read Norman Vincent Peale, the author of The Power of Positive Thinking, but I often think of my dad, a relentlessly resilient soul, who, despite setbacks in his dual careers of commercial fisherman and schoolteacher, never seemed to get him down for long—not even on his death bed. His last, wan quip, just a day or so before he died: Not good news when the priest shows up!

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