Enabling an Age of “Exponential Exploration” for Medicine
By Kara Bortone, Head of JLABS in San Diego
Like many of you, I too am a recovering bench scientist. Fifteen years ago, I spent my hours doing mini-preps, site-directed mutagenesis and affinity chromatography, which in those days were all state of the art. In fact, I still remember my professor complaining, “You kids don’t know what real work is, I used to toil over making buffers and painfully extracting DNA – and now you just order a kit and do it in 30 minutes.” Even in grad school, I thought to myself, “is that really so bad?” Now we get to concentrate on new discoveries, not reinventing the mini-prep.
Now, in my current role as Head of Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS San Diego, the flagship JLABS life science incubator, I am amazed at the innovation we see every day. Not only in the 65 companies that we host at our facility in San Diego, and our broader network of 450+ JLABS companies worldwide, but also in the new products and services that we see these companies using. I wish that I could have had a nano-spectrophotometer, an automated western blotter or have been able to do a 90-minute Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay test. Oh, the things I could have accomplished!
We certainly have been helped by the rapid advance in technology. Moore’s Law accurately predicted how computer processing power would double every two years. “Flatley’s Law,” (named after Jay Flatley, the former CEO of Illumina) says the cost of sequencing is dropping even faster than Moore’s Law. In comparison, our medical knowledge is increasing exponentially: in 1980 it doubled every seven years; in 2010, it only took 3.5 years to double our knowledge; and by 2020 that time is predicted to drop to 73 days[i].
But this rapid gain in medical knowledge isn’t just a result of better technology. I would argue that it’s the people that develop, market and operationalize rapidly developing technologies who are enabling an age of exponential medicine through something I call “exponential exploration.”
For example, at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego in early November, we discussed the gut-brain axis, neuroinflammation and cellular social networks. All of these things would have seemed like science fiction a few years ago. But today, they enable the generation of pluripotent stem cells for the treatment of Parkinson’s, and allow us to investigate subtle changes to the gut microbiome which influence bipolar depression.
Ironically, this exponential increase in our medical knowledge was counter to the narrative a few years ago that costs of research and development were rising while the number of novel drug approvals was decreasing. Some theorized all of the “easy” products had already been developed, or that stricter regulators were affecting the rate of new drug approvals. That period was even light-heartedly referred to as Eroom’s Law – or Moore’s Law spelled backwards – which is that drug discovery was becoming slower and more expensive over time. However, in 2017 we saw a reversal in that trend, as the FDA approved 46 drugs, more than twice as many than the prior year. We are set to outpace that number in 2018 with 49 new drugs already approved[ii].
What makes this innovation possible? Well, a number of things. Investment is up - biotech venture capital funding has grown from around $3 billion in 2010 to more than $9 billion last year[iii]. And we are beginning to see personalized medicine solutions in oncology and rare diseases based on the sequencing advances that took place over the past five to 10 years. In addition, the tools we have are also improving. I have seen first-hand how having the latest and greatest equipment at JLABS helps our companies be more efficient. As one JLABS company CEO told Inc. mMagazine: “The amount of work we have achieved in the last eight or nine months [at JLABS] is as much as we achieved in the previous four years.”[iv] Other entrepreneurs have commented that you can’t underestimate the value of having equipment that is calibrated and running smoothly in an industry where data reigns supreme, and producing it means reaching the next value-inflection point.
But It isn’t just high performing equipment that gives these companies an edge: having access to technical and customer service, as well as digital platforms and information that deliver the right tools for the right solution. These technologies empower entrepreneurs to study inflammation as a potential root of neurodegeneration, identify biomarkers to unlock the secrets of memory loss and connect data from light and electron microscopy to gain novels insights to neuronal connections.
At JLABS San Diego, companies like StemoniX Inc. are performing 3D microbrain assays for high-throughput drug discovery. Siragen Pharmaceuticals Inc. is studying calcium imbalance in aging, while Origami Therapeutics Inc. is fixing misfolded proteins to treat diseases like Huntington’s. All of this research would not be possible without state-of-the-art tools.
We at JLABS have a lot in common with solution providers. We are all enabling companies to focus on what they do best – cutting edge science - while we take care of operations and behind the scenes support. We empower these innovators to explore exponentially, move the needle and deliver the next generation of new products to patients and their families who are urgently waiting for them.