Brian Harris is a biotech entrepreneur and an inventor who is bullish on Maine. He also finds himself being asked more often than he would like why he moved his company to Maine instead of the biotech mecca that is Cambridge, Mass. He’s been there, done that. His company, MedRhythms, which just received FDA approval for its groundbreaking medical device to help patients recover from stroke, is now based in Portland. Harris — a Howland, Maine, native — asks, “Why Maine? ... Well why not Maine?” We at The Jackson Laboratory couldn’t agree more.
Looking beyond the lobsters and lakefront cabins, a very different industry has been growing in Maine, often behind the scenes: biomedicine. Spearheaded by biomedical research, such as that done by JAX, an independent, nonprofit biomedical research organization headquartered in Bar Harbor, the field also encompasses other innovative, high-tech endeavors, such as enhancements in the delivery of medical testing and care, medical device development, veterinary medical products and services, and software and data science initiatives. To explore the current state of biomedicine and its potential for the future in Maine and beyond, JAX gathered policy makers, researchers, entrepreneurs, and other experts in a variety of fields to Portland, Maine, for the inaugural Biomedical Innovation and Technology (BIT) Conference. And while there were self-described “gray hairs” on stage and in the audience, a large contingent of local student attendees underscored the value — and importance — of highlighting the exciting education and career opportunities emerging on their doorsteps.
Since its humble beginnings nearly a century ago, JAX has grown into a large biomedical research institution with a global presence. While its original Bar Harbor campus remains the largest, JAX now has 11 physical locations in the United States, Japan, and China. JAX also employs more than 1,700 employees in Maine alone, including at its newer Ellsworth and Augusta facilities, and is the largest employer in Hancock and Washington counties. As such, JAX’s continued growth and prosperity depend heavily on the growth of Maine’s innovation economy and the ability to attract highly skilled workers to and within the state.
Several BIT sessions were disease research focused, bridging the behind-the-scenes work of biomedical science and discovery with societal impact. The program showcased the work of JAX scientists and key collaborators looking to improve clinical options and medical delivery in disease areas of interest — cancer, addiction, and endometriosis — to those within Maine and around the country.
A session about the Maine Cancer Genomics Initiative (MCGI) was a fitting kickoff, with JAX Chief Medical Officer and MCGI Medical Director Jens Rueter, M.D., showing how, in only seven years, MCGI has transformed cancer care in Maine. Originally formed to provide access to genetic testing and precision oncology throughout Maine, MCGI is now working to expand clinical trial networks and further increase care options for Maine cancer patients. MCGI has been hugely successful, but even it cannot overcome all of the challenges faced by rural medical institutions throughout the U.S. MCGI works with all oncologists in the state, but Regan Gallagher, D.O., MBA, CPE, chief medical officer at Cary Medical Center in Caribou, in rural Northern Maine, noted that they no longer have an on-site oncologist, so their patients must currently go elsewhere to benefit from MCGI’s work. Nonetheless, Leslie Bradford, M.D., a gynecological oncologist at MaineHealth in Portland, stated that in most of the state, MCGI not only benefits patients but has also enhanced the ability to retain healthcare talent in Maine and attract young physicians to join a robust, in-state network to provide the best possible cancer care.
Already a crisis, opioid use disorder and overdose rates have further increased in Maine in recent years, exacerbated by the pandemic and the spread of highly powerful — and toxic — synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. Gordon Smith, who directs Maine’s opioid response on behalf of Governor Janet Mills, summarized the impact in stark terms, while also citing biomedical research as a reason for hope that intractable problems can be solved through science. Researchers are exploring the biological basis for addiction susceptibility, including how background genetics, sleep and circadian rhythm disruption, along with adverse childhood experiences, increase risk. JAX Senior Research Scientist Jason Bubier, Ph.D., said that some mouse strains he works with are highly resistant to overdose while others are not, with a 150-times difference in dosing levels between the two extremes. Yet, despite the clear biological evidence, a stigma persists around addiction as a moral issue, and this can serve as a barrier to effective treatments. In a panel discussion, Ryan Logan, Ph.D., a circadian rhythm and addiction researcher at Chan Medical School (University of Massachusetts, Amherst), and a former JAX postdoctoral associate, emphasized the immediate importance of community access to treatment pipelines, as research such as his own can take many years to yield results. The National Institutes of Health’s Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) initiative, presented by Director Rebecca Baker, Ph.D., was praised for its support of studies to bring interventions and prevention services to disparate communities, as well as those researching science-based solutions to the opioid crisis.
Cancer and addiction are common topics in health-related headlines, but endometriosis, which affects approximately one in 10 women worldwide, is not. Endometriosis occurs when cells resembling those in the endometrial lining of the uterus that are shed during menstruation grow elsewhere in the body, forming lesions. Endometriosis patients experience chronic pain and associated pathologies, including infertility. But while its impact can be severe, in part because it’s not a terminal disease and affects only those born as female, both medical education about it and funding for research into it are lacking. The topic was introduced at the BIT conference at a screening of “Below the Belt,” a documentary about endometriosis and the struggles to find care and relief experienced by those with this condition. An effort in Connecticut — spearheaded by JAX’s Elise Courtois, Ph.D., who also directs the single cell biology laboratory, and Danielle Luciano, M.D., who directs the Minimally Invasive Gynecological Surgery (MIGS) Division at UConn Health — has successfully established a biobank for endometriosis research and is working to increase awareness of, and funding for, endometriosis research. In a discussion moderated by Maine State Senator Mattie Daughtry and including Courtois, Luciano and respected public health expert Dora Anne Mills, M.D., M.P.H., the panelists noted that endometriosis has been a “silent” disease that is seldom talked about, and the key to a better future is to spotlight it, as at BIT, and advocate for increased funding and research into potential non-invasive treatments.
Innovation and growth
While basic research in the genetics of human disease is JAX’s focus — and a large and important part of the biomedicine and innovation landscape — the overall picture is much larger. How can research capabilities be enhanced and expanded to accelerate research discovery and medical progress? How can both academic and industry biomedicine efforts be effectively supported and utilized to form a community for everyone’s benefit? And what does the future look like within Maine and well beyond?
Speakers provided a broad range of perspectives to address these questions, from presenting the latest in cell model research that expands what’s possible in the laboratory to entrepreneurial efforts in biomedicine that are based in Maine but aspire to have global reach regarding the implications of data science and artificial intelligence for continued progress. And while not all of the answers are in hand, the sessions painted an encouraging picture for growth in the years ahead.
Developing and working with cells and tissues grown outside the body, known as in vitro, is an important component of biomedical research. But generic cells grown on flat surfaces such as petri dishes don’t fully capture their natural, three-dimensional states within the body. Modern in vitro research methods are addressing the gap, and BIT attendees learned about some of the latest advances in the field. JAX Professor Martin Pera, Ph.D., and Assistant Professor Sasan Jalili, Ph.D., focused on academic laboratory applications. Pera works with induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are mature cells reprogrammed to a pluripotent state, meaning that they can be induced to develop into any cell or tissue in the body. iPSCs are vital tools for human cell research, and they also hold promise for regenerative medicine, as a person’s own cells can be used to generate tissues. Jalili is a bioengineer who is working to develop “organs on a chip,” which combine human cells on a platform that looks like a microscope slide to emulate the basic function of whole organs. Among the many applications being studied are immune and microbiome dynamics in the lung and gut, where external materials (air, food) interact with our own cells deep inside the body. Jennifer McDonald, M.D., chief operating officer of the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute (ARMI) in Manchester, N.H., is planning for a future that includes tissue regeneration. Originally launched through Department of Defense funding to develop restorative therapy for veterans, ARMI is now a nonprofit company whose goal is to biofabricate cells, tissues and organs and distribute them for therapeutic applications equitably throughout the U.S.
Biomedical research’s ultimate goal is to improve medical care and benefit people, and, sometimes, the best way to do that is to found a company to create and sell a product or service for that purpose. Heather Johnson, Maine’s commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, showed that Maine’s biotechnology sector has been among its fastest growing, adding more than 2,700 jobs over just the past five years — a major contribution to the state’s total goal of adding 75,000 jobs, across the entire economy, by 2029. Nonetheless, research- and development-based entrepreneurism is a risky and difficult process, and founders need support and resources to succeed. The Maine Technology Institute (MTI), a public-private organization, addresses that need, serving as a knowledge hub and funder for those launching spinoff and startup companies in Maine. Brian Whitney, MTI’s president, stated that MTI currently funds 150-175 projects annually, and it has provided $365 million in funding since its founding in 1999. A panel discussion included three company founders at various stages in their paths that have worked with MTI. They all emphasized the importance of MTI and the supportive ecosystem in Maine in relation to their decision to stay or relocate to the state. Brian Harris, CEO and co-founder of MedRhythms, which produces music-based neurological rehabilitation products to help people with neurological challenges (e.g., post-stroke, Parkinson’s disease) move and walk better, moved from Boston to Portland to launch the company eight years prior and, just days before the conference, received FDA approval for a key product. Originally from Howland, Maine, north of Bangor, his response to those questioning why he relocated to Maine to form his company is an emphatic “Why not Maine?” Citing factors including quality of life, access to talent and the growing innovation economy, Harris and the other panelists were bullish on Maine.
The future of data
It’s an exciting time at JAX and in Maine, but how can the growth and potential of today be sustained and lead to expanded opportunities tomorrow? According to the panelists convened to discuss next steps, the answer lies in data science and the ability to store, query and extract information from the vast amounts of biomedical data being generated. A vital component of that future also lies in educating and developing the talent needed for the future innovation economy. Aileen Huang-Saad, Ph.D., MBA, and director of the life sciences, health, and engineering programs at Northeastern University’s newly formed Roux Institute, founded in Portland, said the Roux is looking to reimagine how education functions within the community to prepare scientists and engineers for the larger role they’ll need to play. A wide variety of computational and data science methods will need to be employed, but artificial intelligence is on everyone’s minds, from the generative AI used for ChatGPT to the machine learning algorithms already being applied to find subtle patterns and signals in large research data sets. But AI tools are only as powerful and useful as the data they are trained on and to which they have access. As more subject matter experts become AI tool users and builders, Amanda Stent, Ph.D., director of the Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence at Colby College noted, “The ones who own the data for AI will own the world.”