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BioAgenda Boston Regional Roundtable
April 27, 2004

Topic: The Great Experiment in Biotech: Has the Collaboration Between Academia and Commerce Worked?

This was the first of four BioAgenda Regional Issues Roundtables, held on April 27, 2004 in Boston at Abe & Louie's Restaurant, underwritten by IBM Life Sciences with support from Atlas Venture. These roundtables are evening events with dinner and a panel addressing a major issue in biotech and cutting-edge life sciences. We had a sell-out group (though the event was free) of leading scientists, entrepreneurs, thinkers, and the media listening to a hot topic discussed by a fascinating panel. 

Panelists (access complete bios by clicking on names):

  • Steven H. Holtzman, B.Phil., CEO and co-founder, Infinity Pharmaceuticals
  • Jean-Francois Formela, MD, Senior Partner, Atlas Venture
  • Harvey F. Lodish, PhD, Professor of Biology, MIT and Member, Whitehead Institute of Biomedical Research
  • Juan Enriquez, Chairman and CEO, Biotechonomy; founding director of Harvard Business Schools Life Sciences Project


David Ewing Duncan, Award-Winning Writer and the Founder and Editorial Director of BioAgenda

Summary of the Discussion:

Since the U.S. Congress passed laws in the early 1980s allowing universities and the National Institutes of Health to more aggressively acquire patents and to collaborate with business, joint projects have spawned a great new wave of interactions. Over 200 universities have opened patent and licensing offices, earning over $1 billion a year for the academy. Industry has greatly expanded funding of university and government-based researchers.

This fulcrum of activity has greatly blurred the lines between pure research and commerce  but has this been for the good? Has academia benefited from additional funding and access to labs and research in companies, or have academics and universities been compromised by conflicts of interest when they stand to gain financially from their research and in cases where they are running human trials to test new drugs? On the business side, have companies benefited financially from the collaboration, or have they been spending billions of dollars chasing research projects that have failed to produce real products?

Our panelists represented a diversity of backgrounds and opinions, and arrived at a consensus that the experiment has many flaws, and in some cases there have been abuses, but that on balance, that the experiment should continue with reforms rigorously enforced to ensure that commercial imperatives does not overwhelm the imperative for basic research, and that the free exchange of ideas is not imperiled.

Most panelists and audience members agreed that rules for conflict of interest, especially where patients are concerned, should be rigorous and codified nationally. They agreed that researchers running human trials should have no financial stake in the therapies being tested. Commercial interests, the panelists agreed, are on their own in determining whether or not to spend money on university research.

"You go into these arrangements as a company knowing that different rules apply," said Infinity CEO Steve Holtzman, a Rhodes Scholar philosopher and bioethics expert. "You can't keep things secret, and you have to respect the role of pure research."

Full Transcript of Discussion
 Boston 2004 Transcript - 168KB

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