May 17, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 40
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BIO convention addresses health care disparities

David Cogger

Don’t get Cambridge Mayor Kenneth Reeves going on the importance of biotechnology.

Two weeks before the wildly successful Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) 2007 International Convention in neighboring Boston, the city of Cambridge held a citywide science event that included 230 scheduled presentations.

The city also broke the Guinness world record of the world’s longest genome trail by stringing 27 chromosomes on light poles from Kendall Square to Harvard Square.

And during last week’s BIO conference, Reeves said, the city of Cambridge was the only one in the country to have its own booth.

That is impressive, given that the conference attracted a record 22,366 attendees, an increase of nearly 15 percent from the previous year, with representatives from 48 states and one-third of attendees hailing from outside the United States. The conference also featured the largest gathering of biotech exhibitors in history, with more than 1,900 companies and 60 domestic, country and regional pavilions representing every aspect of the biotechnology industry.

As Reeves tells the story, Cambridge held its own.

“We have almost an embarrassment of riches in Cambridge when it comes to biotech,” an ebullient Reeves said. “It would be a shame if the schools did not take advantage of the strong biotech presence here.”

And therein lies the rub. In addition to urging biotech companies to locate in Cambridge, Reeves made it clear he believes it is equally important that those companies make a commitment to share the industry’s resources in providing training for future scientists.

Closing the achievement gap is a problem of which biotech officials said they are all too aware.

On the last day of the conference, researchers and executives from Genentech, the San Francisco-based company considered to be one of the founders of the biotechnology industry, told a mostly African American audience that some of the obstacles to closing the achievement gap and making high-quality medical care and research available to the nation’s underserved, uninsured and minority populations are rooted in history.

Among the convention’s array of breakout sessions hailing advances in biotechnology research and development, the discussion entitled “Improving Biotechnology Industry Access to Underserved Populations” stood out as a cautionary tale, drawing attention to disparities in medical care and gaps in access to clinical trials and science education in the nation’s African American and minority communities.

Panel members pointed out that many African Americans are still dubious of and reluctant to participate in clinical trials. That skepticism stems largely from the lingering affect of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, conducted between 1932 and 1972, in which hundreds of African American sharecroppers were denied medical treatment as part of a scientific experiment.

Dr. Armin Weinberg, professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said clinical trials among minorities have often been plagued by misinformation leaving almost nothing to describe their potential benefits.

“Building a relationship saying, ‘We’re going to return something to the community,’ is key,” Weinberg said.

Although panelists expressed optimism about the future of improved healthcare for African Americans, studies show access and trust are not the only challenges.

According to medical researchers, African Americans suffer from conditions like diabetes, heart disease and AIDS at a rate three to five times that of the general population. In addition, infant mortality rates are considerably higher among African Americans than among other ethnic groups.

Dr. Frank L. Douglas, executive director of the MIT Center for Biomedical Innovation (CBI), a collaboration of schools at Harvard and MIT, echoed some of the sentiments expressed by the panel.

Douglas said during an interview that the problem with medical care in African American and other minority communities stems from a lack of attention to medical need, the present state of care in a given community, allocation of resources and a lack scientific capability.

According to Douglas, more blacks need to be trained in science.

“People tend to practice where they grew up — the resources are available to train scientists, but they are not distributed in a way you’d like to see,” he said.

Moreover, Douglas agreed about the need to reestablish trust in minority communities. But he said the way to do so is by engaging individuals in the process of scientific study by making them feel they have a stake in the end result.

“If they [the members of a community] are on the fence, you have to create a movement leading to critical mass,” he said.

Douglas said the public in general needs a better understanding of how the process of developing new medications takes place. He said people often operate under the misconception that when drugs come to market, they have been proven totally effective and free of side effects.

“We don’t know the mechanisms by which some drugs work,” Douglas said. “We bring the drugs to the market with a proposed mechanism, then experiment in the patient population, then the marketplace for side effects. Experimentation takes place even after the drug is on the market.”

Douglas further argued that stumbling blocks in health care delivery reach across racial lines. He said improvements must be made in engaging people in what the drug companies are trying to do and in “making people trust in your motives.”

Douglas is one of the fortunate ones. He left his home in Guyana at an early age to pursue an education. He attended Lehigh University on a Fulbright Scholarship and later attained higher degrees from Cornell University in engineering and medicine. During his 22 years in the pharmaceutical industry, Douglas led the discovery, development and market launch of more than 20 drugs, including Allegra, Anzemet, Cardizem, Lovenox, Ketek and Exubera.

Just last month, the New York-based Associated Black Charities awarded Douglas its prestigious 2007 Black History Maker Award. Douglas’s Black History Maker Award was named for Percy L. Julian, who, despite personal and societal hurdles, became an outstanding organic and natural chemist. Julian was the first to synthesize physostigmine and to use soybeans to synthesize human steroids.

By most accounts, solutions to what bedevils the delivery of quality health care may come down to educating the next generation of scientists.

In 2004, the United Way of Massachusetts Bay successfully launched its Math, Science, Technology initiative (MSTi). Through a “hands-on after-school curriculum,” MSTi prepares young people for careers in science-related industries including healthcare and biotechnology. The pilot program included more than 50 children from Somerville and Cambridge.

According to an evaluation of the MSTi program by TERC, a Cambridge-based nonprofit education research and development organization, the percentage of students “liking science” grew from 65 percent to 75 percent after they participated in MSTi. More significantly, students that saw science as important in everyday life grew from 36 percent to 77 percent. And after-school staff thought that MSTi activities were worthwhile 96 percent of the time.

The United Way’s Dr. Jabbar Bennett said there has not been good, quality science education in many of the communities in Boston.

“They are underrepresented in biotech and lack exposure to science,” Bennett said. “Kids who still have a chance but who lack adequate support for higher-level science training are our target.”

Bennett said MSTi is trying to overcome the fear entrenched in some older members in the African American community dating back to Tuskegee by appealing to young people.

“Middle-class families understand the value of education while some city kids are alone and lack role models,” he said. “Through MSTi, the United Way is developing a future workforce.”

It is that point which makes Reeves even more excited.

“It’s important that children get the greatest benefit,” Reeves said.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (center) and Massachusetts Under Secretary of Business Development Robert Coughlin (right) talk with Novatarg Pharmaceuticals President Fatemeh Mojtabal about the possibility of moving her New Jersey-based company to Massachusetts during the Biotech convention in Boston on Tuesday, May 8. (AP photo/Charles Krupa)

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick addresses visitors at the Biotech convention in Boston on Tuesday, May 8. Patrick, eager to attract more biotechnology business, proposed that the state make a $1 billion investment in the industry to challenge California as a hub of stem-cell research. Patrick’s proposal, revealed in a speech to scientists and biotech companies at the 2007 BIO International Convention in Boston, is a 10-year initiative. Similarly, Cambridge Mayor Kenneth Reeves has boasted about his city’s rich biotech resources in an effort to convince the industry’s companies to locate there. (AP photo/Charles Krupa)

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