By Robert S. Langer, ScD
If there was one word I would use to describe the atmosphere in the early biotech days, it would be excitement. Biotech already included scientists, professors, companies, and investors. But it was a small group of people compared to today. There was also some discomfort with the commercialization of bioresearch, especially among academics. Whenever money is involved, many people change how they view things. That was certainly the case in academia, where more than a few looked negatively at the dollars flowing into basic science research. Here’s an example.
In 1975, the late Judah Folkman, MD, received the first large industrial grant that I believe that anybody ever obtained. It totaled $23 million, was from Monsanto, and made front-page headlines. Around 25 years later, Folkman was a dinner speaker, and he was asked to describe the advantages and disadvantages of the grant. Folkman, who was an extremely humble man, replied, “Let me state the disadvantages first.” He said there’s a gene that a lot of people have, including many professors, that is never
expressed directly—a gene called jealousy.
Much of the excitement in the 1980s was coming from Genentech. It was such an exciting place to work. (I was an advisor for them beginning in 1979.) They were getting a number of the first biotech drug approvals. And up in Boston, you could see Biogen get going, and then more and more biotech startups began entering the picture. It was pretty amazing.
While the industry has evolved as expected, you could not have predicted the specific sciences that have become major areas of focus, such as mRNA, CRISPR, and tissue engineering. All we know is that researchers will continue to make important discoveries. Scientists have developed, and will continue to develop, different tools, technologies, and drugs that enable them to fight a wide range of human diseases.
Looking toward the future, I believe that mRNA, CRISPR, tissue engineering, gene therapy, and cell therapy, including CAR T-cells, will continue to advance. Cancer and brain diseases will remain major areas of focus. We will probably also see breakthroughs in digital therapeutics, nanotechnology, and drug delivery. Researchers will keep dreaming big dreams and make discoveries, whatever those may ultimately turn out to be, that will fundamentally change our health and lives for the better.
Robert S. Langer, ScD, is the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT. Langer has written more than 1,500 articles and has over 1,400 issued and pending patents worldwide. The patents have been licensed or sublicensed to over 400 pharmaceutical, chemical, biotech, and medical device companies. He is the most cited engineer in history (h-index 293 with over 351,000 citations according to Google Scholar).