By Dan Sorenson
Southern Arizona has the assets and the attitude to “own” an emerging biosciences niche – medical diagnostics.
Technology advancements and trends in healthcare policy point toward dramatic growth in medical diagnostics – a field in which Ventana Medical Systems in Oro Valley is already a global leader.
That’s according to a business development strategy developed and led by Dr. Raymond L. Woosley for Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities. It was presented and discussed by a panel of experts this spring. Woosley is former University of Arizona VP of health sciences and dean of the College of Medicine as well as founding president of the Critical Path Institute and president of AZCERT, an independent nonprofit research and education center.
“Every community in the nation has bioscience in its cross hairs,” Woosley said. “We really need to invest in our strengths and leapfrog ahead. We’re proposing that diagnostics may be the future.”
The study found that the Tucson region has the scientific base and the intellectual, financial and commercial leadership to become the preeminent location for diagnostics companies.
Joe Snell, TREO’s president and CEO, said the goal was to identify a niche within the bioscience sector where “we could win – and win big.”
Bioscience is already one of Southern Arizona’s science sectors, along with aerospace, optics and geoscience. The TREO strategy titled Securing the Lead recommends building on what already works and tightly focusing on the medical diagnostics field.
On a fact-finding mission to San Diego in 2012, TREO and community leaders learned that San Diego’s success in the biosciences was decades in the making.
“What we learned in San Diego is that they’re doing today what they prepared to do 20 to 30 years ago,” Woosley said. “That’s what successful bioscience clusters around the country have done.”
Woosley consulted with more than 80 community thought leaders and held numerous stakeholder meetings. “What we learned, what we asked was ‘what will be the technology that drives the bioscience economy 10 to 20 years from now?’ ” he said.
“Continuing advances in the understanding and application of the human genome and DNA will likely lead medical diagnostic development,” he said. Today medical diagnostics go beyond tests that simply detect disease. Diagnostics can also pinpoint the treatment most likely to be effective for the individual patient.
Woosley said Tucson shouldn’t “let the problems of today keep us from finding the way to get to the ripe future. As hockey players say, ‘Where’s the puck going to be?’ This community is prepared to do that.”
Snell said, “The broad expertise of this stakeholder group was critical for developing sound, specific action items. Our goal was to become much more laser focused on the region’s strengths and how they coincide with current healthcare trends and opportunities for future commercialization of bioscience products.”
Woosley said, “We need to establish a seed-to-success strategy. We need to incubate scientific discoveries from the university and from companies, accelerate concept-to-prototype development, and connect companies to community resources so that they can grow, prosper and remain in the region.”
The TREO event was hosted by Ventana Medical Systems at its Innovation Park campus. Company president Mara G. Aspinall was among the panelists.
Aspinall said one way diagnostics technologies can potentially reduce overall healthcare costs is determining which drug is going to work for a specific patient. She cited something as simple as aspirin therapy – the use of regular doses of aspirin to prevent heart attack – as an example. She said aspirin is only effective for 60 percent of patients. Other drugs – including vastly more expensive drugs – also don’t work for all patients. In the case of a five- or six-figure cancer drug, determining a drug’s efficacy with a specific patient, sometimes through use of DNA analysis, could save a huge sum.
Part of the future for medical diagnostic growth turns on changing the perception that diagnostics adds to medical costs, several panelists said. Excessive testing ordered by doctors is often criticized as unnecessarily adding to skyrocketing medical costs.
Properly applied diagnostics actually lower costs by giving physicians faster and more specific information about a patient’s condition. That allows them to use the drugs that will be the most effective.
“The surveys that have been done focus on the over use of diagnostics,” Aspinall said. “We have to change the argument. We have to link it to therapy because otherwise it will be perceived as increasing costs. We have to get across that if we increase diagnostics over here, you will see a reduction of hospital days or drug use.”
The BACcel rapid diagnostic system would be one example of that. It is hoped the system will give rapid detection of pathogens responsible for hospital-acquired infections – in less than six hours, versus as much as three days using traditional techniques – addressing a growing and costly problem in the U.S. The BACcel system would also identify specific drug resistance problems, allowing earlier and more effective treatment. The system is being developed by Tucson newcomer Accelerate Diagnostics (formerly Accelr8 Technology Corp.)
In addition to the synergy of having bioscience firms, the university, BIO5 and C-Path in close proximity, the panel of experts cited other factors that indicate a greater return on efforts to narrow the focus of medical technology growth specifically to diagnostics.
Larry Mehren, Accelerate’s CEO, cited the desirability of locating in an area with a highly-skilled and specifically trained labor pool when he announced plans to bring the Denver-based company here last year. Mehren and other principals had previously been associated with Ventana and were familiar with the area’s resources.
Looking ahead, panelists said the emerging role of diagnostics pairing drugs known as companion diagnostics offers the potential for growth in the field – but may require FDA approval.
Panelist and former Pennsylvania Congressman James C. Greenwood is now president and CEO of the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington D.C. He told TREO members to contact their congressmen to educate them on emerging technologies, in part to avoid policy conflicts, particularly in light of the new Affordable Care Act.
Greenwood said some changes in the administration of healthcare in the U.S. – from paying for procedures to paying for outcomes – could lead to better use of diagnostics, and in turn be a boost to the industry. “When you pay for outcomes, they (healthcare providers) are going to figure out how to be smart. It becomes in their financial interests,” he said.
TREO’s Securing the Lead study resulted in priorities for developing the medical diagnostics field locally.
• A National Diagnostics Institute, a private-public partnership, would be developed here almost immediately with the first priorities including developing a diagnostics toolkit and establishing shared laboratory space to incubate companies.
• In the mid-term, the group would establish a “community accelerator” to assist companies and make efforts to increase cross-border biotechnology manufacturing.
• The longterm goals include an increase in “clinical translational research,” which turns basic science discoveries into practical applications, and completion of the “seed to success” strategy.
To access the full report, visit www.treoaz.org.