“I believe we’ve hit an inflection point in medical research. Cell and gene therapies have ushered in a new era of what we can accomplish through medicine.” ‒ Craig Mickanin, Novartis
For most people, the word “medicine” conjures images of medicine containers or over-the-counter syrups, but for Craig Mickanin, it encompasses a far broader set of tools. A biopharmaceutical researcher at Novartis, Craig spent most of his two-decade career studying cell and gene therapies, an emerging group of treatments that until recently seemed like science fiction.
Consider CAR-T, a process by which a sample of a patient's own blood cells are extracted and genetically altered to selectively target cancer before being re-injected into the body. The ultimate form of personalized medicine, this revolutionary treatment has already begun changing the way we treat certain types of blood cancers, after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first two CAR-T therapies in 2017.
“Today’s innovations involve much more elegant ways of treating disease,” Craig says. “The concept of a ‘drug’ is changing dramatically.”
The Driving Force
From an early age, the path to science seemed set for Craig, who jokes, “I was the six-year-old who read encyclopedias for fun.” After earning his biology degree from The College of William & Mary, Craig found his calling in a research lab and joined Novartis in 1998. When the company moved its worldwide research headquarters to Cambridge, Massachusetts a few years later, Craig moved with them.
“There is a constant flow of new ideas coming into Cambridge,” Craig says. “Physicians are talking to physicists; engineers are talking to venture capitalists. It’s hard to overstate how important that mixing of ideas is to fostering innovation, and I feel a lot of cities can learn from what Cambridge has achieved.”
At Novartis’ Cambridge facility, Craig and his team are responsible for evaluating the growing rolodex of technologies and drug delivery mechanisms to match them with a disease that could be impacted. This requires both a deep understanding of the underlying mechanisms behind today’s diseases and an expansive knowledge of new discoveries to find a good fit. The job is impossible for one person, team or even company to master, so Craig relies on a vast network of partnerships within the Cambridge area between academic institutions and teaching hospitals.
Challenge and Looking Ahead
By 2060, the number of U.S. adults over age 65 is expected to double from 49.2 million to 97.4 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Without new ways of treating diseases, these shifting demographics are expected to place immense strain on the health care system—a clear case for continued investment in medical innovation, Craig says.
“If we can decrease hospitalization because of effective treatment, it’s in the best economic interest of the U.S. and world today,” he says.
Craig admits this won’t be easy. From drug discovery to FDA approval, developing a new medicine takes 10 to 15 years and costs an average of $2.6 billion. All the while, Washington is considering a set of misguided policies that many biopharmaceutical companies have warned would pose serious threats to future investment.
But Craig’s long career has taught him that challenges come and go; meanwhile, the end goal remains the same.
“A really good day for me happens when I get to see fresh data, and I realize this observation could potentially help us cure a patient,” Craig says. “Success is rare in this field, and moments like these make you realize all the training, failed experiments, meetings and frustrations are worth it. Because ultimately, everything you’re doing is in the best interest of patients.”
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