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A Sunrise Industry: Life Sciences and the Genomics Wave

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Innovations from the life sciences industry -- especially pharmaceuticals, devices and diagnostics -- have been central to the massive improvements in longevity and quality of life achieved over the last 100 years. Today, however, we keep hearing that this innovation is slipping. The evidence cited for this, it seems, is all around us: anemic drug company pipelines, staggering costs of discovering new compounds, tougher regulatory hurdles, and more.

I think that the conventional wisdom is wrong. Unlike so many other industries, one of the wonders of the life sciences is that they can keep reinventing themselves through new knowledge, new technologies, and new innovations. One of the wonders of the U.S. is that it continues to be the heartland of life science innovation.

So what about the next wave?

I predict that life sciences are about to again become America's sunrise industry. Over the next ten years, we can expect to see an unprecedented explosion of new treatments that will help drive a revolution in health and wellbeing. Thank goodness - because we will need that revolution to address the unprecedented health challenges posed by the 54 million baby boomers in the U.S. who will be over 65 by 2020.

One technology that will play a big role is genomics. Genomics is the study and knowledge of our genetic makeup. By obtaining more knowledge of the genetic make up of subpopulations and of individuals more specific, more effective and safer treatments and preventions will be unleashed.

Roughly ten years ago, when a first draft of the humane genome was completed by the Human Genome Project, we were told by some that genomics was going to change the world.

It didn't change the world then -- but it will help us to now. It has taken a decade to learn how genetic knowledge could be turned into health power. That moment has arrived.

Already, thanks to genomics, we know that there are specific kinds of breast cancers affecting people with specific genes -- and now we have more specific and targeted effective new treatments for that disease. Researchers predict that the same will prove true of most other cancers. Likewise we are learning how chronic diseases such as diabetes are tied to the genetics of individuals, and we will be discovering ways to prevent disease well before the disease develops or to treat it in a targeted manner if it is discovered in later stages. There is hope that we can do the same with Alzheimer's disease, which we now see is also closely correlated to specific genes.

The genomics revolution is an example of what Harvard's distinguished expert on innovation, Clayton Christensen, describes as "disruptive innovation" -- a game-changing new factor that creates a tidal wave of transformation.

Until recently, we have seen disease as a homogenous condition that affects everyone who has the disease in the same way. Now we know that afflictions like cancer are not one disease, but are rather constellations of many diseases that affect different people differently. Likewise, until now most medicines have been one-size-fits-all, even though we knew that they worked great in some people, and less so, or not at all, in others.

All that will be changing -- in large part through genomics. We are entering the era of personalized health care. Our health will be improved, and disease prevented, according to what we need and what we know about ourselves. It's the same kind of individualized steps that might go with personal financial planning or choosing a family vacation -- except with more certainty of success than most of us achieve through financial or vacation planning!

This is enormously exciting. It is why life sciences will be our country's most important sunrise industry over the next several decades. Because of this sunrise, the tens of millions of baby boomers can expect to live longer and live better. And because of this sunrise, we will also have the power to avoid billions of dollars in new health care spending. For example, just imagine the costs we will save if we can prevent Alzheimer's, and keep millions of older Americans out of nursing homes. Good health will be good economics.

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