It’s impossible to know exactly where, when and how new scientific discoveries could change the world. A decade ago, how many people predicted that immunotherapy would finally explode onto the scene as a major breakthrough in cancer treatment? In the 1970s, many anticipated that the invention of molecular cloning would usher in a new era of medicine — but few could have predicted that biologics would come to represent seven of the world’s top 10 medicines, helping people with serious diseases from cancer to multiple sclerosis.
Looking ahead, a deep understanding of the biology of disease is opening up new scientific frontiers. Regenerative medicine could allow us to reconstruct a lung or rebuild damaged tissue, and we could soon have the ability to deliver medicine directly to specific tissues in the body.
Today’s discoveries have the potential to become tomorrow’s pioneering medicines. As the head of Genentech’s research and early development group (gRED), it’s my job to anticipate which smart scientific risks we should take today in order to make progress on the medicines of the future.
Here are three major trends that I think will shape our industry and the nature of healthcare over the next decade.
As the head of Genentech’s research and early development group (gRED), it’s my job to anticipate which smart scientific risks we should take today in order to make progress on the medicines of the future.
Drugging the Undruggable
The past 50 years of research have yielded very effective treatments using small molecules and biologics. But the human genome is finite, and there are only so many targets within it that we can go after with these approaches.
We need to expand what’s in our scientific tool box to address historically “undruggable” targets — genes like KRAS that are known to drive cancer but continue to elude us. This means designing more sophisticated small molecules and biologics, such as bispecific antibodies, on the one hand, while also exploring new modalities and drug delivery technologies that can widen the target space.
In the next decade, I predict that the lines dividing biology, chemistry, protein engineering and computer science will blur and maybe disappear completely. Technologies such as CRISPR and gene therapy will be used to change the genetic code of disease. RNA interference, another technique to alter expression of a gene, will allow us to selectively erase disease-causing proteins. Cancer will be confronted with approaches like vaccines and cell therapies, which could deliver on the true promise of personalized medicine. I’m also intrigued by the potential of therapies aimed at the microbiome, which offers a diversity of targets within the vast universe of microorganisms that inhabit our own bodies.
Science Without Borders
These sorts of innovations will enable us to blaze new trails in areas like neurodegenerative diseases and cancer, where new treatments are desperately needed. But this uncharted territory will require a blend of diverse skills and expertise to tackle. I believe success will come to those who can forge partnerships and build multidisciplinary teams uniquely matched to confront all of the unknown challenges we will face.
That is why we’re investing in bold science both in our own labs and through partnerships, taking smart risks that are rooted in deep scientific expertise and pursuing flexible deal structures with companies and academic institutions alike. From our unique collaboration with BioNTech on individualized neoantigen specific immunotherapies (also known as personalized cancer vaccines) to our work with Adaptive Biotechnologies on neoantigen directed T-cell therapies, partnerships have never been more critical in propelling our drug discovery efforts.
And with the current boom in technological innovation, humans will not be our only partners. Advancements in digital health technologies and improvements in clinical trial design mean we have a wealth of data pouring in about patients’ diseases and how they respond to treatment. To tackle this opportunity head on, we need to evolve the human-machine partnership.
We’re already doing this. For example, we’re using automation to rapidly sift through millions of chemical structures in small-molecule compound libraries used for drug discovery, in order to find the ones that best fit a particular target. And with next-generation genomic sequencing, we are looking for common drug targets across cancer types and distinguishing distinct biological drivers in outwardly similar tumors.
Over the next decade, I expect to see an explosion in data science, with predictive models enabling faster decisions in drug discovery and development based on preclinical, clinical and real-world data. By 2025, we could potentially use artificial intelligence to characterize disease subsets and customize treatment for individual patients. Everyone in our R&D organization will become a data scientist, using novel tools and high-quality data to discover new and more tailored medicines faster than ever before.
The Human Element
To truly shape the future of medicine, we need an orchestra — a diverse group of scientists who can each apply their unique skills, ideas and methods to address a common challenge.
When you put all these pieces together, a picture begins to emerge. The challenges we face today are too complex for any one person, or even one company, playing solo. To truly shape the future of medicine, we need an orchestra — a diverse group of scientists who can each apply their unique skills, ideas and methods to address a common challenge. And we must collectively nurture a culture of curiosity, collaboration and constant experimentation.
We must also recognize that just as science and medicine will change in coming years, so will the people we serve. In the information age, people are more informed than ever, with greater power and influence over their healthcare. In the future, earlier diagnoses will become more common, and people with serious diseases will face more nuanced decisions about whether and when to begin or change treatment.
My goal is to make sure that we’re turning cutting-edge science into medicines that will make meaningful differences for people today and into the future. To accomplish this, we need people who are attracted to and energized by the unknown, working together, sharing new ideas, testing and adapting them, and testing them again. This is the scientific method and the nature of re-search – to continuously ask questions and experiment in search of new discoveries. If we do that, I’m confident that we can create the innovative medicines of the future, together.