MassBio Possible Talk: How Epidemics and Pandemics Have Transformed Life Sciences Through Diagnostics

The COVID-19 pandemic has created roadblocks to progress in the life sciences, forcing innovation in how research is conducted. The diagnostics industry in particular has emerged as a key player due to its vital role in helping identify those affected by SARS-CoV-2 and gaining insight into the viral immune response. These discoveries have the potential to guide everything from public policy to the development of therapeutics and vaccines. The importance of diagnostics is also shedding light on the critical need for infrastructure that can successfully collect, test, store, and transport biospecimens, such as blood and saliva, to researchers relying on such specimens to advance their research.

As part of MassBio’s State of Possible Conference this June, Jim Boushell, VP of Biospecimen Solutions with Precision for Medicine, delivered a “Possible Talk” on how pandemics, including COVID-19, have reshaped healthcare and, in turn, spurred life science innovation. Featuring biotech’s brightest minds, MassBio talks discussed what’s possible for patients and the industry that wasn’t possible just 5 or 10 years ago. Boushell’s webinar talk, titled “How Epidemics and Pandemics Have Transformed Life Sciences Through Diagnostics,” is now available on-demand and summarized here.

Boushell began with a brief history of epidemics and pandemics over the past 100 years, beginning with the so-called Spanish flu that ravaged the world in 1918-1919. Like the coronavirus, the 1918 flu was highly contagious and easily transmitted through respiratory droplets. It spread too rapidly for an effective scientific response; the only defense was social science in the form of what we now call social distancing. The second major pandemic of the 20th century was the Asian flu. Considered to be a novel flu as it was part avian and part human, this flu was notable in US history because a vaccine was developed before the virus spread to this country. Maurice Hilleman, a virologist at Walter Reed Medical Center, and his team of researchers collected samples from Japanese soldiers infected with the Asian flu and worked with pharmaceutical companies to develop the vaccine, which was used to inoculate over 40 million people before the virus took root. The third major pandemic was HIV, which differed from the others because it is a retrovirus that is transmitted via direct contact or transfusion.

Learnings from these past epidemics and pandemics are guiding our response to COVID-19. As with the 1918 flu, SARS-CoV-2 emerged without any known treatments. However, with current technology researchers have been able to identify marketed drugs with the potential to treat the new virus. With regard to vaccination, the Asian flu vaccine was essentially the first fast-tracked vaccine, and we are seeing recognition of the need for accelerating time to market with Emergency Use Authorizations (EUA). What we have learned from the HIV pandemic is that a combination of behavioral and biologic modifications can be used to manage pandemics that may not be fully eradicated.

After providing this historical perspective, Boushell explored the current approach to understanding and solving COVID-19, which involves a combination of data diversity, remote R&D, drug repurposing, and fast-track research.

With regard to data diversity, Boushell said, “COVID-19 is a global crisis and we are studying it that way—globally. A hundred years ago, data was primarily used to predict mortality. Today, our approach is more scientific. We’re using data to determine predictors for survival, stratify risk groups, and figure out what treatments might work and when they should be administered.”

Given the diversity, volume, and velocity of data generated, Boushell notes that Precision for Medicine has repurposed its proprietary biomarker data management platform, QuartzBioSM, to harmonize, analyze, and interpret data to identify biomarkers and even drug targets that should be considered in the defense against SARS-CoV-2.

The social distancing required by COVID-19 has led to advances in remote healthcare and R&D as well. Boushell spoke of the importance of leveraging technology, from the internet and social networks to next-generation sequencing and artificial intelligence. He noted that this pandemic has created urgency to accelerate the drug pipeline and that stakeholders from industry, academia, and government mobilized a rapid response including the unprecedented sharing of data. Using remote techniques for clinical trials and research has proven vital in the fight against COVID-19, as Boushell noted regarding Precision for Medicine’s work running Karyopharma’s global clinical trial for selinexor. Taken together, all of these transformations are enabling progress not only toward the development of COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines, but also in the preparation for any future public health emergencies.

Boushell concluded with a look to the future.

“Science and medicine are incredibly powerful forces, especially when they are brought together,” he said. “And we are better armed today in winning a battle against a pandemic than we have ever been before.”

PortraitJim Boushell
Vice President,
Biospecimen Solutions
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Precision for Medicine is a global clinical research company that specializes in biomarker-informed clinical studies and complex data management. With operations in more than 50 countries worldwide, Precision for Medicine supports the development of COVID-19 diagnostics and therapeutics through Its deep experience In respiratory and infectious disease, comprehensive blospecimen solutions, regulatory expertise, BSL-2 laboratories and biorepository, and end-to-end support for immune monitoring, antibodies, vaccines, and all related research.

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