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Biotech Conference Set To Tackle Opioid Crisis, Drug Prices And More

The Massachusetts Biotechnology Council’s two-day annual meeting is expected to draw hundreds of industry leaders to Cambridge starting Wednesday, according to the organization's website.

MassBio, an industry group that represents more than 1,000 Massachusetts biotech companies, has dubbed this year's meeting the State of Possible Conference.

The group's director, Robert Coughlin, says the rebranding is meant to reflect advancements in the biotech industry over the last decade.

“We're going to talk a lot about drugs and therapies that change the course of disease, and in some cases, cure disease,” Coughlin says. “That's something that we couldn't talk about 10 years ago.”

John Maraganore, CEO of the Cambridge-based pharmaceutical company Alnylam, is one of dozens of industry leaders scheduled to speak at the event. Last year, Alnylam became the first company to receive FDA approval for a type of gene therapy called RNA interference.

Maraganore sees a bright future for biotech in Massachusetts, pointing to the state’s ecosystem of universities, venture capital firms and pharmaceutical companies.

“We are living in a time of explosive growth of new opportunities for new medicines to treat disease,” he says.

But there are challenges for biotech, and the conference will reflect that too. One session will focus on drug pricing, which has been the subject of congressional hearings in recent months. Executives from local and global pharmaceutical companies are expected to discuss how to keep therapies accessible to consumers while remaining profitable.

Alnylam’s newly approved RNA interference drug, Onpattro, costs $450,000 a year for the average patient, before discounts. Maraganore says because of the limited window before generic drugs are allowed on the market, companies like his need to profit while they can.

“I like to say the medicines we pay for today are essentially free for our children and free for our kids’ kids,” Maraganore says. “If we don’t have a system where we reward the time and the risk it takes to bring the innovation forward, we’re basically denying our future generations access to these important innovations.”

Onpattro comes with a money-back guarantee of sorts. If a patient doesn’t benefit from the treatment, the company has offered to provide rebates to insurance companies.

The opioid crisis will also be on the conference agenda. Kerry Wentworth, the chief regulatory officer for Burlington-based Flexion Therapeutics, is scheduled discuss how the pharmaceutical industry, government and law enforcement can work together to reverse the crisis.

Today’s opioid addiction epidemic stems partly from the rise in opioid pain medication prescriptions starting in the 1990s, when drug companies claimed the drugs were not addictive, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Several states, including Massachusetts, have sued Purdue Pharma, the maker of the painkiller OxyContin, over its role in the crisis. The parties in one such lawsuit, in Oklahoma, announced a $270 million settlement on Tuesday.

Another focus at the conference will be how to keep biotech growing in Massachusetts. Analysis by global accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers shows health care companies in New England raised more money than companies in any other region, including Silicon Valley, in the last quarter of 2018. But some industry leaders have warned that future success could be hindered by factors like Massachusetts' high rents and traffic.

Coughlin says the purpose of the conference is to bring people who work in the industry together to find solutions to problems like before lawmakers feel the need to intervene.

“If we wait and try to have policymakers solve this on their own, they're not going to get it right,” he says.

Overall, Coughlin remains optimistic about the future of biotech.

“Massachusetts is undisputedly the best place in the world for the life sciences,” he says.

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