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Lehigh’s first bio conference inspires participants to keep eyes on the Prize

Nobel Prize winner Gunter Blobel was the keynote speaker.

Nobel Prize winner Gunter Blobel, M.D., Ph.D., advised students to “do things you have passion for…and never work with the idea of getting the Nobel Prize” as he gave the keynote address at Lehigh’s first-ever bioscience and biotechnology conference on April 27.

“In my case,” he said humbly, “it was entirely accidental.”

Blobel’s “accident” involved a significant discovery that has impacted research on numerous diseases, including AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease and cystic fibrosis. Blobel’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1999 was awarded for, “the discovery that proteins have intrinsic signals that govern their transport and localization in the cell.” Put more simply, Blobel identified what he calls “zip codes” to help direct proteins to their proper places in a cell.

“Dr. Blobel’s talk was fascinating,” says David Williams, vice provost for research at Lehigh who helped organize the conference. “It was a reasonably low-tech description of a very high-tech, long-term research effort to understand one of the key aspects of how our cells work, a research area that is closely related to some of Lehigh’s own research strengths.”

During his keynote speech, Blobel discussed his work and educated participants on how secreted proteins, such as insulin, cross the endoplasmic reticulum; the production of stably transfected cell lines with multiple genes; and the effects of Chromovert, a technology enabling rapid production of stable cell lines (cells treated to constantly express a certain gene).

Perhaps more noble than his Nobel Prize was Blobel’s donation of part of his Nobel Prize money to the rebuilding of one of his favorite cities, Dresden. He took a break from the scientific part of his speech to show photographs of the Dresden Cathedral he is helping to restore and to make a brief, but powerful political statement: “Religion plays a big role in conflict in the world,” he said, “and as scientists we have a great responsibility to mediate and be sure that this conflict doesn’t explode and become dangerous to all of us.”

The two-day bioscience conference, titled “Industry-University Partnerships in Bioscience and Biotechnology: Defining the Future,” brought nearly 200 industry and academic leaders to Lehigh’s Mountaintop campus on April 27-28 to focus on what others are doing in the life science research area and to discover how Lehigh can improve its own life science research and technology transfer.

Participants, who came from across the spectrum of the business of life science, and from both small and large local corporations including Merck & Company, Lehigh Valley Hospital, and Immunotope, Inc., discussed potential strategies, practices, and structures to optimize the commercial potential of the university in bioscience and biotechnology.

“The aim of the conference was to give the bio industry community a broader knowledge of Lehigh’s bio research and our strong record of partnership with industry to create new companies in the Lehigh Valley, attract existing companies to the Valley and facilitate the transfer of Lehigh faculty research in the life science area into the entrepreneurial domain,” Williams says.

In addition to Blobel, featured speakers at the conference included Dennis Yablonsky, Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development; F. Mark Gumz, C.O.O., Olympus America; William W. Crouse, Healthcare Ventures General Partner; James R. Tanenbaum, Morrison & Foerster LLP; Douglas A. Michels, President and CEO of OraSure Technologies, Inc., and Kathleen J. Shino, NIH SBIR/STTR Program Coordinator.

The conference was organized as part of an increasing trend for partnerships between universities and industries in technology development. Innovations in licensing strategies, co-development relationships, early stage corporate formation, and financing strategies facilitate these partnerships.

--Elizabeth Shimer

Posted on Tuesday, May 02, 2006

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