‘The words all ring a bell. Biotechnology, genomics, stem cells — they float around our headlines and the scientific fringes. We may have even read articles to help us get a handle on the terms.
“The real problem, however, lies in the ever-increasing chasm between the general knowledge of these biotech disciplines and today’s actual cutting edge advances.” So says Karin Lucas, veteran biochemical researcher and instructor for the BioTech Primer seminar service.
On Thursday and Friday, December 15 and 16, at 9 a.m. BioNJ will present its annual “Biotech Primer: Industry Knowledge for the Non-Scientist.” This two-full-day course is held at the Robert Wood Johnson Center in Hamilton. Cost: $945. Visit www.bionj.org.
Course topics include genetic engineering, proteomics, drug discovery and development, measuring gene expression, stem cells, DNA, antibodies, and an industry overview. The course is designed for non-scientists connected with the biotechnology industry, such as investors, attorneys, managers, university administrators, and, as Lucas puts it, “everyone in the trade from HR to CEO.”
Lucas, who has instructed the BioTech Primer industry overview courses for seven years, has evolved from scientific specialist to generalist. Lucas grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, with an English teacher mother and a machinist father who was entranced by scientific discovery. Attending California Polytechnic State University, she earned her bachelor’s in biochemistry in 1998. While taking her doctorate from UC-San Diego in inflammatory pain processing, Lucas found her love of teaching.
Moving into the private sector, Lucas joined Cardinal Health’s research team, helping to advance more than 25 new therapies. Subsequently, she worked for Biogen Idec formulating oncology treatments. Lucas began teaching BioTech Primer part time in 2004 and this year took over the full-time post of director of education and training.
“Even those who have done a deep dive into one area of biotech find that they must lift themselves from their specialty and take in a more generalized knowledge to obtain the full picture,” says Lucas. What was considered one discipline’s standard knowledge five years ago may have altered dramatically, and those changes impinge on other related areas of study.
#b#Stem cell changes#/b#. The first human stem cell line was created a mere 13 years ago, and since then our hopes for these undifferentiated cells and technological manipulation techniques have grown exponentially. Harvested before they evolve into one of the human body’s 200 specific cell types, implanted stem cells might be employed to replace defective or damaged cell tissue. Studies have been done to determine the potential for implanted stem cells to transform into insulin-secreting pancreatic cells for diabetes treatment, and for dopamine-secreting neurons in Parkinson’s therapy, as well as several heart disease areas.
“Most recent efforts have focused on adult skin tissue stem cells,” Lucas says, adding that technology is coming that may make adult stem cells “pluripotent,” meaning they can differentiate into almost any kind of human cell, much like embryonic stem cells. “Technology is now coming that may make adult stem cells as pluripotent as certain stage embryonic stem cells.” With the addition of certain genetic material and proteins, undifferentiated adult cells may be able to transform into any of the three major layers — endoderm (interior stomach, gastrointestinal, and lungs); mesoderm (muscle, bone, blood); and ectoderm (skin tissues and nervous system).
Such capability would make moot the intense ethical battles over embryonic cell harvesting. “Recently, the Pope came out and gave sanction in favor of adult tissue stem cell research,” says Lucas. “Now it’s just a question of the technological hurdles.”
#b#Genomes get personal#/b#. “What makes genomes so great is that understanding them allows us to splice and dice genes, giving ourselves weed-resistant crops and much more,” says Lucas. But the greatest genome revolutions are now making medical treatment personally customized.
The traditional method of oncology treatment has been to find the cancerous tumor, define its extent, and treat it with the various standard therapies — one medicine fits all. “Now we are swiftly approaching a new phase, where the physician will take a biopsy from the individual patient, diagnose exactly which cells have mutated and in what way, and then prescribe a measured treatment, specific to that person,” says Lucas.
Additionally, that treatment may involve placing a therapeutic protein within a genome and delivering it to the afflicted area. “We are now studying ways to have certain bacteria produce these therapeutic proteins for us,” says Lucas.
The creations are boggling, and ever-advancing. The 20th century never witnessed genome sequencing — the determining of the complete DNA sequence of an organism. Now, 11 years after the first successful attempt, laboratories routinely perform full sequencing from small, even ancient, DNA samples in a single session. Such achievements have equally transformed the face of the research and development business. The large corporate centers have complete vertical control on a given therapy and become hubs fed by a series of smaller niche providers, feeding development and trial segments, as well as specific tools.
One of the true challenges facing biotech administrators is to provide the best possible climate for these discoveries and advances to occur. To do so, they will have to race ahead as hard and creatively as their colleagues at the lab benches.
But can they take in the technical complexities of these disciplines for which they’re trying to provide environs? Says Lucas: “Anyone can learn this material. With a little study, you can empower yourself to ask the right questions and add branches to the tree of your knowledge.”