Expanding the Boston-Cambridge life-sciences hub


Massachusetts is home to a cluster of leading universities, hospitals and private-sector companies. How will this hub develop in the future?

THE 19TH-CENTURY American writer and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr once described the state capitol in Boston, Massachusetts as the “hub of the solar system”, a knowing nod to the city's tendency toward self-importance. Today, Boston is still known as ‘the Hub’ — but when it comes to life sciences, the nickname is entirely justified.

To have an impact, we need to collaborate with industry. Issi Rozen, Broad Institute

Boston and neighbouring Cambridge, a city of 100,000 people that sits just across the Charles River, are home to one of the largest and most productive clusters of life-science research and product development in the United States and, arguably, the world. Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), both in Cambridge, and Tufts University, in nearby Medford, are their academic wellsprings. Harvard's medical school is a hub in its own right, with 12 affiliated hospitals that include venerated institutions such as Massachusetts General Hospital, a 907-bed facility a mile away from MIT; Brigham and Women' s Hospital; and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

If that wasn't impressive enough, Boston and Cambridge also boast some of the largest and most productive private biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies in the United States. The sector employs more than 48,000 people and the jobs pay well — US$95,628 on average, compared with the average Massachusetts salary of US$53,834. The two cities buoy up the state as a whole; according to federal government labour statistics, Massachusetts has more biotech research and development (R&D) jobs than any other US state, and about 80 percent of the positions are based in Suffolk and Middlesex, the counties where Boston and Cambridge are located. The sector is also resilient, weathering the 2009 economic downturn without a fall in overall employment. What factors have led to the hub's success, and how will this be maintained?

Kendall Square: From bomb site to beehive

The Kendall Square area, home to MIT, is the hub within the Boston and Cambridge hub. According to a tally from the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council (Massbio), a trade association group, there are more than 110 biotech and pharmaceutical companies in Cambridge, most located in Kendall Square. “There's really no other place with so many companies in such a small area,” says Peter Abair, economic development director for Massbio. Biogen Idec and Vertex are the largest homegrown biotechs in the area, although Vertex is planning to move across the river to Boston. Genzyme, now a subsidiary of Sanofi-Aventis, is also based in Cambridge.

Kendall Square buzzes with pedestrians, cyclists, food vendors and construction. Restaurants seem to beckon at every turn. It's very different to how MIT professor and Nobel laureate Phillip Sharp found it when he joined MIT's Center for Cancer Research in the mid-1970s. “It looked like a bomb site,” he says. Sharp credits the transformation of Kendall Square from a blighted urban landscape to life-science beehive partly to a decision by MIT to place more emphasis on the biological sciences. The shift toward life sciences started with recruitment of Salvador E. Luria to head the university's fledging microbiology department in the late 1950s. That department and its offshoots can now claim six Nobel laureates, including Sharp and Luria himself who won the prize in 1969 for his work on restriction enzymes.

Sharp says MIT had about 30 professors in the biological sciences when he was a young professor. Now it has 150. And he estimates that about a third of the university's current engineering students are involved in the life sciences. Abair, at Massbio, concurs that the emptiness of Kendall Square also worked in its favour: “You had this real wasteland. But it offered the infrastructure to accommodate the lab space that the industry would eventually need.”

Pharma's expanding footprint

Biotech companies were the pioneers of the life-science industry's presence in Boston and Cambridge. Biogen — co-founded by MIT's Sharp — established its first lab in Kendall Square in 1981. The large pharmaceuticals followed, seeking access to the region's academic brainpower and the possibility of collaboration. Novartis led the pack, uprooting its research headquarters in Basel, Switzerland, 10 years ago and transplanting it to Kendall Square. Two years later, Merck built a gleaming, eleven-storey glass tower a block from Harvard Medical School in the Longwood Medical Area in Boston. Takeda, the Japanese company, purchased Cambridge-based genomics company Millennium in 2008, and in 2011 Sanofi-Aventis completed its purchase of Genzyme.

The Longwood Medical Area in Boston, home to Harvard Medical School (above), is one of the two nodes of the Boston-Cambridge life-sciences hub. Credit: ROSE LINCOLN/HARVARD NEWS OFFICE

Novartis is becoming more embedded in Kendall Square with the creation of a US$600-million, 550,000-square-foot office and lab complex that company officials say will look and feel like a campus. Construction began in 2012 and the facility is scheduled to open in 2015.

In 2011, Pfizer signed a 10-year lease with MIT for 180,000 square feet of lab and office space in Kendall Square so it could move its neuroscience, cardiovascular, and metabolic and endocrine research units — and 450 jobs — from Groton, Connecticut, to Cambridge. The strength of the region's academic institutions was a deciding factor in the move. “Placing Pfizer biologists within one of the world's preeminent locations for biomedical research will enable us to build partnerships with leading academic and research institutions,” says company spokesperson Steven Danehy. Pfizer has also established one of its Centers of Therapeutic Innovation (CTIs) in the Longwood Medical Area. The company describes its CTIs as small, nimble units that will collaborate with academic scientists at the earliest stages of drug discovery.

Nina Green, head of the technology transfer office at Tufts University, welcomes the Pfizer move. “It's another way for academics to work with industry to develop transferable research,” she says.

Grant go-getters

Another essential element of the Boston-Cambridge life-sciences cluster is government funding, especially National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants. In absolute terms, more NIH money goes to California than to Massachusetts. However, on a per capita basis, the Bay State receives four times as many NIH dollars as the Golden State, and most of the funding goes to Boston and Cambridge. As a group, Boston institutions have received more NIH grants than those in any other US city for 16 consecutive years, according to Harvard University spokesperson Kevin Casey. The main reason for Boston's success is the presence of Harvard and its teaching hospitals. The cluster received US$1.56 billion in NIH grants last year — 7 percent of national NIH funding and about two-thirds of the Massachusetts total, says Casey.

Start-up companies seeking funding look to venture capital rather than NIH grants, and the Boston-Cambridge hub also delivers in this area. Venture-capital investment in Massachusetts biotech companies hit an all-time high of just over US$1 billion in 2011, according to Abair at Massbio.

A helping hand

The state of Massachusetts also helps fund the life-sciences cluster within its borders. For example, the state-funded Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center (MTTC) provides training and advice to a wide range of start-up companies as well as opportunities to pitch to venture capitalists (VCs). Green, at Tufts, says at least one of her university's scientists has secured VC funding after making a presentation at an MTTC event.

The Broad Institute has offices and lab space in both Boston and Cambridge and is committed to collaboration. Credit: ANTON GRASSI

The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) is another state funding mechanism, set up in 2006 specifically to foster its namesake industry with a US$1-billion array of tax incentives, matching grants, low-interest loans of up to US$750,000 and workforce development projects. So far, 20 small companies have taken out loans and four have paid them back after either getting VC funding or being purchased by larger companies. MLSC president Susan Windham-Bannister says the low-interest loan programme gives small companies access to capital before venture capital firms are willing to take a risk on them. “Angel investors and VCs send companies to us when it is too early for them to invest but the companies are promising,” she says.

In total, MLSC invested or spent more than US$300 million during its first four years of operation. Windham-Bannister says the expenditure will eventually result in the creation of more than 8,700 jobs in Massachusetts and leverage US$940 million in private investment.

Bright future

The Boston-Cambridge life-sciences cluster currently has two nodes: Kendall Square in Cambridge and the Longwood Medical Area in Boston. Plans are in place to develop two more in Boston: the ‘Innovation District’ — a 1,000-acre stretch along the city's historic waterfront — and Harvard's further expansion into the Allston section of the city, where its business school is located. In a boost for the Innovation District, Vertex chose the area for its relocation from Cambridge to Boston.

Broadening the cluster will create an environment that is even more conducive to collaboration. Fundamentally collaborative institutions include the Broad Institute — a partnership between Harvard and MIT — and Wyss Institute — a Harvard bioengineering organization whose partners include some of its affiliated hospitals, Boston University and the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The Broad Institute plans to work more with private companies, says Issi Rozen, director of strategic alliances. “We want to have an impact,” he says. “To do that we need to collaborate with industry.”

A sign of potential things to come is the cancer cell line ‘encyclopedia’ that Novartis and the Broad developed together and published in the spring of 2012 in Nature. The encyclopedia includes the complete genetic and molecular profiles of almost 1,000 human cancer cell lines.

For now, the hub's critical mass seems to be self-sustaining. Novartis's Cambridge location allows it both to “recruit locally and attract people globally,” says spokesman Jeff Lockwood. Rent is expensive and the cost of living among the highest in the United States, but “you don't come to Cambridge because it is affordable,” says Lockwood. “You come because there are a lot of smart people you want to work with.” The Broad Institute in particular has“ a powerful convening function,” says Todd Golub, the institute's chief scientific officer. “We think of ourselves as the Geneva of Boston.” The urban density of Boston and Cambridge is an added bonus, says Rozen of Broad. With many institutions and businesses just a short walk away, “you can easily have coffee or lunch [with a potential collaborator]”. Thanks to these kinds of opportunities, Boston and Cambridge look set to remain the United States’ life-sciences hub for many years to come.