As the year winds down, STAT reporters are taking a look at the stories they’re most eager to track in 2016. We’ll be running these daily through Dec. 31. Look for more New Year’s predictions here.
Kendall Square — the Cambridge, Mass., hub of biotech, pharma, and MIT — is a hard place to pick just three people to keep an eye on. So much goes on there that affects the greater life science industry: Deals are struck, drugs are discovered, companies are formed — and all that happens within walking distance.
Biogen, for example, is shifting its focus to Alzheimer’s after a 2015 that saw layoffs. Baxalta just opened up a new research center. Scientists at the Broad Institute keep refining the transformative CRISPR technology, and companies relying on it, including Editas Medicine and CRISPR Therapeutics, keep grabbing headlines themselves. And fascinating startups regularly spring up in venture capital offices or accelerator spaces.
Our point being, there’s a lot happening in Kendall Square, both boom and bust. So while the three people below will likely make noise this coming year, plenty more will be shouting alongside them.
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Dr. Jeff Jonas, CEO of Sage Therapeutics
Many biopharma companies skedaddled from the neuroscience field in the past decade, but Sage is one of a handful of companies working on drugs for diseases of the central nervous system, creating rumblings of a resurgence in drug development in the field. The company’s drugs regulate neurotransmitters in hopes of restoring balance in the brain’s signaling.
A former Shire executive, Jonas joined Sage in 2013; it went public the next year. He now leads a company with drugs aimed at a number of indications progressing through the clinic. Jonas, who trained as a psychiatrist, wrote a book about Prozac in the early 1990s and worked in psychiatric drug development at other companies, so he’s clearly invested in the field and understands the challenges.
Sage’s leading drug has shown promise in early studies, and the company hopes it can work as a therapy in multiple diseases. Next year, the company is expected to have results of its first Phase 3 clinical trial with the drug in super-refractory status epilepticus, a rare disorder that causes uncontrollable seizures and is often treated now with induced comas. The company is also working on other epileptic disorders and postpartum depression, helping propel some optimism across the industry for the future of treating brain disorders.
Amy Schulman, venture partner at Polaris Partners, CEO of Arsia Therapeutics and Lyndra
Schulman moved to the Boston area last year to become the first female venture partner at Polaris. The former general counsel of Pfizer, she is also chief executive of two early-stage companies based in Kendall’s LabCentral, Arsia and Lyndra, both of which seem poised for growth in 2016.
Arsia, cofounded by legendary MIT professor Robert Langer, is trying to tweak drugs so that they can be delivered to patients at home instead of intravenously at clinics or hospitals. It just announced a deal with Biogen that could be worth $100 million, one of about a dozen deals it has secured with drug companies. And this year, Schulman helped start Lyndra with the goal of extending the release of drugs taken orally.
Schulman also serves as the executive chair of SQZ Biotech, a Boston company that just inked a deal with Roche that could reach north of $500 million.
Jeremiah Johnson, assistant chemistry professor at MIT
The focus in Kendall Square tends to be on commercializing discoveries, but Johnson is one of many scientists whose work shows basic research still has a home in the neighborhood.
Johnson, who came to MIT in 2011, is pursuing research that could lead to improvements in how drugs are delivered in the body, in addition to having implications in other fields, such as alternative energy and material sciences.
Johnson and his colleagues have discovered a method to load nanoparticles with a greater variety of cancer-fighting drugs by incorporating the drugs into the particle’s structure as it is assembled. The lab has also created nanoparticles that can be used to help see what’s happening inside an organism, with the potential to use the technology to keep tabs on a tumor as it advances and track where drug molecules travel.
And last month, Johnson’s team unveiled a new material called a polyMOC that could be used as a controlled drug-release system, in addition to having potential applications in fuel cells and water purification.