Biomedical and thermodynamic innovators give first-hand accounts of how they disrupted and transformed their industries and what the future may hold.
- Dr. Jay Bradner, President, Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research
- Prof. Dr. Ian Hunter, Hatsopoulos Professor in Thermodynamics, MIT
- Moderator: Aziz Hamzaogullari, Chief Investment Officer, Growth Equity Strategies Team, Loomis, Sayles & Co.
As an example, Aziz Hamzaogullari, Chief Investment Officer of the Growth Equity Strategy Team at Loomis, Sayles & Co., said it was predicted in the 18th century that half of the world’s population would die of starvation by the 1930s. But the invention of the Haber-Bosch process – an artificial nitrogen fixation method – changed the equation by turning air into bread (or nitrogen into fertilizers), and dramatically alleviated the food shortage concern.
“We see innovation as an opportunity, not just from an investment perspective, but really for humanity,” Hamzaogullari said. He then introduced two particularly impressive inventors currently working on disruptions in transportation, agriculture, manufacturing and medicine.
Needle-free drug delivery and solar powered cars
Ian Hunter, a professor in thermodynamics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has created more than 25 companies. One of his many current projects is the miniaturization of chemical analysis instruments. He displayed one, a mass spectrometer the size of a child’s toy that he pulled out of a little case. Normally these are massive and cost $1 million apiece, but his lab is producing them for just $100 each, thereby expanding the range of applications for which they can be used.
Another innovation he presented was a muscle-like actuator that has multiple uses, including putting drugs into a patient’s body (without a needle) at the speed of sound, firing seeds into soil for rapid planting, and eliminating the need for pesticides by physically carving insects in half.
One invention he said is already up and running is a revolutionary vehicle. “The assumptions that we’re making about transportation in the future are largely wrong,” he said, noting that he does not believe electric vehicles are the future wow factor. Instead, his bioinstrumentation lab at MIT has created vehicles whose power consumption is dramatically reduced, making a solar solution possible. Panels on the vehicle can harvest energy and even share it with other vehicles, forming their own grid.
New class of molecular drugs ready to fight cancer
On the medical front, Jay Bradner, MD, a former clinical oncologist, said when he was in that role he “was struck by the lack of creativity of the molecules we were deploying as medicines,” and believed toxic chemotherapies and high doses of radiation were “truly medieval.”
Bradner now works to find new cures for cancer. He believes most of the biopharmaceutical ecosystem still reaches for low hanging fruit, though modern technology gives inventors the chance to make medicines like we’ve never seen before.
For example, researchers know how to create therapeutic molecules that fit perfectly into “pockets” in proteins associated with cancer, cardiovascular disease and neurological disorders. However, some proteins lack a pocket. Bradner used pasta as a metaphor to describe the technology: Proteins shaped like shells or rotini have identifiable pockets and are “druggable.” Other pastas, like spaghetti, are flimsy and have no pocket and are therefore “undruggable.”
To attack these “undruggable” targets, Bradner’s lab has created a new class of drugs – called molecular glues – that stick to target proteins and destroy them. Since 2015, he has successfully tested these glues on at least 50 proteins. “It’s open season now on these undruggable targets,” he said.
Although it is still early days for molecular glue and other innovations, Bradner is optimistic. He did, however, have one word of caution: “We need to be the best, not just at investing in new technology, but identifying inventors with new technology.”
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The Haber-Bosch process is a process that fixes nitrogen with hydrogen to produce ammonia – a critical part in the manufacture of plant fertilizers. The process was developed in the early 1900s by Fritz Haber and was later modified to become an industrial process to make fertilizers by Carl Bosch.
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