Kendall Squared brings you dispatches from the world’s epicenter for biotechnology and drug discovery.
On the face of it, the event last month looked like a standard networking to-do: people from different companies streaming to the same spot after work, grabbing beers and slices of pizza as they caught up. But as people milled about, they stopped and perused posters outlining scientific studies. They dived into conversations about their latest lab findings. Soon, they sat down to hear a presentation about the role of a signaling pathway in retinal rods and cones.
It may not have fit everyone’s definition of an exciting way to kick back after a day on the job. But the event has become a social ritual for local scientists.
It was the latest of the so-called Cyclic GMP Forums, named for the small molecule that fills important jobs throughout the body, from muscle relaxation to how the eye responds to light. The forums — which typically include talks, poster presentations, and plenty of mingling — serve as an informal way for scientists across industry and academia who study related fields to catch up on cutting-edge research and bounce possible solutions to shared problems off each other.
“It feels a little bit like a reunion,” said Todd Milne, a vice president at Ironwood Pharmaceuticals who helped launch the forums last year. “These are people who care about things you care about.”
Plus, the room is filled with people who can banter about the intricacies of their research area as fluently as if they were gabbing about the Patriots’ injury woes or their new year’s resolutions.
“I can tell my mother all about (cyclic GMP), but she’s not going to care … about some of the details,” Milne said.
At the recent cyclic GMP event, held at Ironwood, a company scientist chatted with a Massachusetts General Hospital researcher about the results of a blood pressure study in an animal model. A talk that night from a researcher at Massachusetts Eye and Ear was largely unintelligible to a non-scientist, but most of the people listening seemed relatively rapt by the presentation.
A similar series of events focused on peptide research called PEPtalks started in 2013 and now, like the Cyclic GMP Forums, takes place quarterly.
Plenty of other regular biotech social gatherings exist, including networking event Biotech Tuesday and a biotech softball league, where players have been known to talk study design and regulatory guidelines on the diamond. What’s different about series like the peptide and cyclic GMP events is their focus on specific areas of science.
The events strike a casual atmosphere, but high-level conversations that wouldn’t be out of place in a lab abound. In this case, however, the people talking might be holding Ballast Point beers, not beakers.
For Dr. Christopher Newton-Cheh, a Mass General cardiologist who helps organize the Cyclic GMP Forum, the events have been instructional not just scientifically but professionally. “It’s an education in how pharmaceutical companies and biotechnology companies develop these drugs and how they identify what the potential stumbling blocks are,” he said.
Obviously, industry scientists who attend keep their companies’ proprietary information to themselves. But the events enable scientists to keep up with research going on locally that may not be ready for the prime time of a conference or journal but that still has salience to fellow devotees of the field.
“Sometimes people will present things that they just found in the lab last week,” said Yvonne Angell, who helps organize PEPtalks.
Angell, a biotech consultant and founder of Picotide Technologies, said the organizers saw a need to bring together the loose community of scientists studying peptides in drug development. Twenty-five or so people showed up to the first event, but word of the PEPtalks has spread through conferences and people telling their coworkers, attracting about 100 people to the most recent one. They’ve been held at Novartis, Ironwood, and Ipsen.
“It’s almost running itself there’s so much enthusiasm,” Angell said, adding that potential speakers are now asking her if they can present.
The ninth PEPtalks, which is open to any researcher, will take place Thursday at Merck Research Laboratories in Boston. On the agenda: a talk from a New York University chemist about protein-protein interactions and one from a Merck scientist called “Peptide Drug Hunter.” Past speakers at PEPtalks included researchers from Tufts, Northeastern, and the City University of New York, as well as scientists from Novartis, Cubist Pharmaceuticals, and Ensemble Therapeutics.
Tarik Soliman, chief executive of Extend Biosciences, a company working to improve how long peptide-based drugs can last in the body, said he has been to five of the PEPtalks. Peptides have tons of unmet potential in drug development, he said, so the events allow scientists from across the field to try to work out some of the common hurdles.
“There have been very few peptides that have made it to the market — everyone’s trying to work out the problems,” he said. “This little niche group has been really fun to interact with.”
Milne agreed. With the first PEPtalk, which he also helped plan, Milne didn’t know what to expect — he referred to it as an “experiment.” But the proof of people’s engagement came as attendance kept growing.
“Seeing everybody show up and be really excited about talking about peptides — it was striking,” he said.