Monday Debrief: Bruce Stillman. The Man.

Cold Spring Harbor Lab CEO Bruce Stillman: Fix the trains, the rest will take care of itself.

There’s barely enough room on the Internet to list Bruce Stillman’s educational credentials and professional accomplishments – his list of awards and honors runs the length of your typical DNA strand. Suffice it to say: In the annals of scientific research, particularly cellular-structure research, the Australian-born biochemist is The Man. Under his watch, CSHL has been ranked the nation’s No. 1 institution for molecular biology and genetics research; it’s also grown into an essential role in Long Island’s burgeoning innovation economy. In his words:

HISTORY OF THE FUTURE: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory was one of the first institutions to embrace technology transfer. When (General Counsel) John Maroney was promoted to manage our technology transfer office back in the early 1980s, we were already involved in starting companies and had been since the 1970s. He did a great job, starting over 20 companies based on the laboratory’s science, in addition to transferring a lot of the lab’s technology to industry. When he announced his retirement, I decided to separate the roles and have separate technology transfer and general counsel positions.

COMMERCIAL BREAK: We were very fortunate to get Teri Willey to head technology transfer. She brings an enormous wealth of experience. At first, I was a little concerned by her huge experience, her contacts and her reputation – I worried we wouldn’t be able to keep her busy. In fact, we’re keeping her extremely busy.

CHARLES IN CHARGE: When we were looking for a general counsel, we didn’t really plan to hire someone with Charles Ryan’s background. It was just a very fortunate circumstance wherein Forest Laboratories was bought out and his agreement was expiring. We were about to advertise the position and it turned out the perfect person was right in our back yard.

GREAT MINDS THINKING ALIKE: Our cancer research partnership with the North Shore-LIJ Health System is off to a great start. The leadership cultures at the two institutions have synergized extremely well, and the two organizations also provide completely different and complementary components. They obviously are a large health system with multiple hospitals, a centralized cancer center, many thousands of patients per year and a desire to be involved in the development of early-stage clinical trials. We are a National Cancer Institute-dedicated research center that’s spent quite a lot of money over the last year furthering the pipeline of preclinical development. The affiliation has only been going on since April, but the two cultures mesh really well.

PRECLINICAL PROGRESS: We’re raising endowment funds to support a preclinical experimental therapeutics facility, which will cost around $15 million with equipment. It will enable our scientists to do preclinical therapeutics using combinations of drugs in mouse models with human cancers. The purpose is to take some of these therapeutics into the clinic – we’re about to take our first breast cancer drug to clinic at North Shore-LIJ next month. Since April, we’ve been meeting with their senior oncologists and senior leadership; now we’re actively recruiting clinical scientists and planning to build a new clinical research unit to be jointly staffed with the health system.

METABOLIC RATES: The Board of Trustees has also approved a plan to raise $75 million toward a separate cancer therapeutic initiative that includes the renovation of facilities on our campus and recruiting new members to focus on metabolism, nutrition and cancer. Cold Spring Harbor scientists and others have shown that metabolism in cancer cells and whole-body metabolism are intimately linked, though cancer cells have a different metabolism than normal cells. We think that should be studied more at the basic science level and addressed therapeutically.

BASIC INSTINCT: One of the best (CSHL) examples of how basic research can have an impact is not actually related to cancer, though it came out of studying cancer. There was Nobel Prize-winning research at CSHL that completely changed the way we think about the structure of genes and how genes are converted into proteins – it’s much more complicated than we ever imagined. Researchers discovered that genes can be expressed in many ways, not just the linear way we thought, and can thereby produce different proteins. This is called splicing. As a consequence, some mutated genes cause diseases.

TARGET LOCK: A Cold Spring Harbor scientist named Adrian Krainer has figured out ways to correct these mutations with drugs made of nucleic acids, as opposed to small-molecule chemicals that are usually the basis of drugs. The nucleic acid drugs can target specific regions of the genome. This has been very successful in preclinical and Phase 1 and 2 clinical trials. We still don’t know the results of the Phase 3 trials, but the Phase 2 data looks encouraging. It’s a fantastic story about how basic science can lead to potential therapies.

ENCOURAGING THOUGHTS: The best hope for the future of the Long Island economy is the technologies emerging out of the research institutions on the Island, not only in biotechnology but in computer science and energy. They really have the potential to drive economic development. The challenge is, how do we create an environment that encourages companies and venture capitalists to invest in this area?

POLITICAL WILL: It’s going to take political leadership. I’m very encouraged by all of the things the governor has done to establish economic-development zones and to address the needs of businesses. I also think (Empire State Development CEO) Howard Zemsky is fantastic. He really gets what it takes to develop industries.

TRAIN OF THOUGHT: There are enormous opportunities here, including New York’s highly educated population and proximity to New York City. We have lots of space on Long Island to attract companies interested in technology development. What we need is the infrastructure. I’d really hope we could get better rail transportation, particularly a third rail between Jamaica and Hicksville, which would open up reverse commuting. If that happens, I think Long Island would become a place where companies would be more willing to make major financial commitments, as Canon has done.

CURE-ALL: If we solve this rail problem and through the economic-development zones get companies to invest in this area, I think the housing and other infrastructure issues will take care of themselves, because of demand. We could have as many people reverse-commuting as commute now into the city. Young people like to live in the city – the laboratory has many employees who live in the city and reverse-commute – but as industries grow here, they’ll move out here when they have children and are looking for good school districts. It’s a natural progression.

Interview by GREGORY ZELLER