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Adrian Krainer was shopping for groceries two days before Christmas in 2016 when a colleague called with terrific news.

The federal government had just approved the first drug for spinal muscular atrophy, the leading genetic cause of death in infants. Krainer, a molecular genetics professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, N.Y., had worked on the scientific underpinnings of the medicine for more than 15 years. Now Biogen, the Cambridge biotech that shepherded it to approval, could start selling the life-saving drug, called Spinraza.

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