Executives from major pharmaceutical and medical device companies and leading research institutions from throughout North Texas met with entrepreneurs from start-up and emerging life science businesses, investors and industry support organizations at the “bionorthTX” Life Science Summit Wednesday.
Thirty speakers discussed subjects ranging from the future of cancer therapeutics and diagnostics to the nitty-gritty of developing brand new companies and products at the day-long summit, held at the University of Texas at Arlington.
The mission of bionorthTX is to encourage development of a rich ecosystem that fosters the growth and success of North Texas life science companies as well as strengthening the economy of the North Texas community, Frank Grassler, vice president for technology development at UT Southwestern Medical Center and vice chair of bionorthTX, said in welcoming nearly 400 participants.
The life science industry of North Texas currently includes 40 universities and research institutions and more than 1,000 companies employing 26,000 people. Life science companies are involved in research, development and marketing of biotechnology, medical devices, pharmaceuticals and diagnostic equipment.
Building an entrepreneurial culture across Texas requires partnerships and coalitions and intensive networking with industry and development of state, federal and private funding, said Tom Kowalski, president and CEO of Texas Healthcare and Bioscience Institute in Austin.
“In Texas right now, there are 20,400 on-going clinical trials, number three in the nation,” Kowalski said. Biotech institutes throughout the state contribute $75 billion to the economy each year and employ 92,000 Texans.
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams discussed “Building a Scalable and Sustainable Life Science Ecosystem in North Texas to keynote the afternoon sessions.
Tax abatements and tax incentives help to close deals with new biotech companies, but quality of life incentives including sports, arts, entertainment, weather, outdoor activities, a skilled workforce, innovative housing, universities, medical and nursing schools, outstanding medical services, a strong Chamber of Commerce and transportation including DFW Airport are what attract new companies to this area, the mayors said.
“Use your bully pulpit,” Price advised, “And, when you lose a business, you have to follow up and find out why…Sit down and find out what exactly was the deciding factor…and fix it.”
Public education, especially early childhood through third grade is one problem Price is trying to fix.
“If we don’t focus on education, we are losing great companies who might come here,” said Price, who recently kicked off the “Mayor’s Literacy Campaign” with a goal of making sure every fifth grader reads at least at the third-grade level.
Only three of 10 fifth graders currently read at third grade level or above in Fort Worth, the mayor said. “I’ve known for some time that we needed to do more with public education…The future workforce is in our public schools now.”
Tarrant County has the largest skilled workforce in the metroplex, “in part because of the incredible job Tarrant County College and our community college system is doing,” Price added.
One of the most interesting discussions at the summit focused on “Strategies for Success in the Emerging Personalized Medicine Era.”
Looking into the future of cancer therapeutics and diagnostics, John Leite, vice president of oncology at Illumina, pointed out that cancer is experiencing an historical transformation, as it is redefined as a genetic disease. Illumina is an international company involved in the development, manufacturing and marketing of integrated systems for large-scale analysis of genetic variation and function
Personalized medicine, based on genetic profiles and biomarkers, allows for the development and use of highly targeted therapies for individual patients and is resulting in a radical increase in quality survival rates, said Dr. Theo Ross, director of the UT Southwestern Medical School Cancer Genetics Department.
“Sequencing is phenomenal, but 98 percent of the people in Texas don’t know they have genetic risk factors,” Ross said.
Targeted therapy uses biomarkers to determine how a particular patient will respond to a particular drug and which patients are most likely to relapse, Ross said.
“The markers are out there, and there will be more and more of them. The next goal is to prevent patients from ever developing cancer… using the same (biomarkers),” he noted.
Already physician researchers have analyzed biomarkers and recommended targeted drugs for use in more than 100,000 cancer patients, added Scott Boyle, PhD, senior director of business development for Caris Life Sciences. Caris, an Irving based company, announced the completion of tumor profiling to identify the molecular drivers of cancer in 100,000 clinical cases in August.
“We used to diagnose cancer, now we look for what’s driving the disease,” said Sunil Joshi, CEO of Gradalis. “But, for most cancers, we’re still not there, and we have been using chemotherapy for 50 odd years.”
Gradalis is a Dallas based company developing and commercializing molecular based personalized therapeutics that are tumor specific.
“Ultimately we want every cancer patient who walks through the door to get genetic testing,’” Joshi said.
The idea is “to allow the patient’s immune system to respond to the drug treating the tumor and change to the next best therapy as soon as the tumor quits responding,” Joshi said.