September 9, 2019

Baker-Polito Administration and Massachusetts Life Sciences Center announce $6.7 million in grant awards to data-driven life sciences capital projects

Nine projects receive funding for cross-sector projects focused on imaging, cancer, neuroscience, and drug discovery/clinical trials

BOSTON – Today, the Baker-Polito Administration and the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) announced $6.7 million in capital funding to nine data-driven, cross-sector projects focused on imaging, cancer, neuroscience, drug discovery and clinical trial design. Governor Charlie Baker made the announcement during remarks at MassBio’s Digital Health Impact Forum in Boston.

The MLSC is funding approximately $750,000 per project, for a total of $6.7 million. Moreover, non-profit and industry partners on these projects have committed more than $13 million in matching funds. The funding was provided through one of MLSC’s newest capital programs, Bits to Bytes, which is designed to provide grants for capital projects that support the life sciences ecosystem in Massachusetts by enabling and supporting the generation and analysis of large datasets to answer pressing life science questions, and to attract and train data scientists in the Commonwealth.

“Massachusetts recognizes that the role of the data sciences in life science innovation has evolved rapidly, and our administration is taking steps to position the Commonwealth to tap into these new opportunities,” said Governor Baker. “Through these grants and future capital investments, we look forward to unlocking the innovations made possible by Big Data, and attracting the talent to make it happen.”

“By providing open access to data that can be leveraged by multiple groups, the Commonwealth can help to accelerate discovery and drive life sciences innovation locally,” said Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Mike Kennealy, co-chair of the MLSC Board. “The administration is pleased to fill this existing funding gap for biomedical research and encourage not-for-profit and private collaboration.”

“As an Administration we prioritize capital investments that promise a strong return on the Commonwealth’s investment over the long term and maximize other available sources of funding, and the ‘Bits to Bytes’ program certainly fits that profile,” said Administration and Finance Secretary Michael J. Heffernan, co-chair of the MLSC Board. “These grants represent an important investment in data science that will help propel important discoveries and further strengthen the thriving life sciences industry here in Massachusetts.”

“There is no doubt digital health and data science are catalyzing a new generation of therapies, medical devices, and enabling technologies,” said MLSC President and CEO Travis McCready. “Cross-sector collaboration, particularly between academia and industry, is key to connecting data to better serve human health and improve patient outcomes. We are proud of this novel effort to encourage that collaboration and position Massachusetts at forefront of solving the life science industry’s Big Data challenge.”

Massachusetts recognizes that the role of data sciences in life science innovation has evolved rapidly and has the potential to catalyze innovation at unprecedented rates. The digital transformation is taking place across the globe in various industries such as healthcare, finance, retail, manufacturing and insurance. Investment in generating well-annotated datasets and training data scientists for life science research is required to sustain Massachusetts’s global leadership position in life science innovation.

The Bits to Bytes capital program aims to drive life science innovation in Massachusetts in the area of Big Data by providing open access to data, enabling multiple groups to leverage this data, which will in turn, accelerate discovery and fill an existing funding gap for biomedical research. The MLSC has also identified Women’s Health as an area in urgent need of advances in clinical care.

Currently, cancer screening for women is highly fragmented. A single patient needing breast, colon, and cervical cancer screening needs to visit three different clinicians (a radiologist, a gastroenterologist, and a gynecologist) to undergo three distinct procedures (a mammogram, a colonoscopy, and a pap smear). The research team at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, led by Dr. Kevin Elias, has developed a machine-learning algorithm for diagnosing cancers using microRNAs extracted from a single blood sample, which promises to be a faster, cheaper, and more convenient approach to cancer screening. MLSC funding will be used to purchase capital equipment needed to generate a circulating microRNA dataset of 10,000 patient samples and then to apply the team’s data science pipeline to create probability models for diagnosing breast, ovarian, colon, uterine, and cervical cancer.

The MLSC and its partners are committed to a collective goal of attracting, training, and retaining data scientists to the life sciences. Exposing data scientists to careers within the life sciences, as opposed to the opportunities usually pursued in finance or Silicon Valley, can encourage the application of their much needed skill sets to the industry and mission-driven work of the life sciences.

Machine learning techniques are not limited to sequencing data, and multiple Bits to Bytes teams are applying these algorithms to various kinds of imaging projects. This includes a second research group at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, which will work with life science company PathAI to advance both public health and the training of data scientists in health research, by creating, organizing, and deploying a comprehensive collection of images from pathology slides in 8,000 cancer patients. This will yield one of the  largest repositories of breast, colorectal, and ovarian tumor images in the United States linked to pre-diagnostic data. The team, led by Dr. Rulla Tamimi, hopes this will propel research and discovery in precision medicine treatments by enabling research institutions and industry to lead scientific discovery in cancer diagnostics/therapeutics at an unprecedented scope and pace.

PathAI automated scoring of protein expression on cells and tissue within a whole slide pathology image

The program also encourages further collaboration between academia and industry, including both early-stage and larger companies, and non-traditional life sciences companies.

Gentuity, LLC is working with researchers at UMass Medical to revolutionize the current treatments of hemorrhagic stroke. The financial support provided by the MLSC will contribute to the creation of a large imaging database and the development of artificial intelligence (AI) processing methodologies, which in turn will catalyze new discoveries to improve the current understanding and treatment of brain aneurysms.

High Frequency Optical Coherence Tomography (HF-OCT) imaging (right) reveals details of neurovascular devices used to treat brain aneurysms not evident on currently available imaging technologies (left). HF-OCT can inform the neurointerventionalist about unsatisfactory device implantation and possible steps to correct it, such as clot formations (arrows) and incomplete flow-diverter apposition on the artery wall (between 6 and 12 o’clock).

Agilent Technologies is also teaming up with Harvard Medical School to create a Metabolomics Center to provide large-scale metabolomics data in cancer.  The team, led by Dr. Marcia Haigis, will deploy novel approaches to integrate metabolite data with clinically relevant datasets to produce predictive models to improve cancer therapy by targeting tumor metabolism.

Pharmaceutical and clinical advances in photomedicine are leading to chemotherapy alternatives, which are extending patient life expectancies without adversely affecting their quality of life. One emerging treatment is photodynamic therapy (PDT), which only requires an organic dye and visible light to kill tumors locally. However, current PDT drugs are expensive and ineffective against certain tumors. Cambridge-based Kebotix is partnering with Dr. Steven Lopez at Northeastern University to identify low-cost PDT drugs by creating a fully automated PDT drug discovery platform, generating a database of over one million candidates, which will be used for a data-driven identification of the most promising targets for synthesis and testing.

All project teams comprise a not-for-profit collaborating with at least one for-profit Massachusetts life science company. Many projects are also further leveraging previous MLSC investments, such as the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Cluster, supported by a previous $4.5 million MLSC capital investment.

The MLSC looks forward to welcoming Bits to Bytes awardees and other key stakeholders for a convening in the coming months to discuss how data is rapidly changing patient care and the unique position the Massachusetts ecosystem currently has to lead in digital health. The MLSC also plans to launch a second round of the program this fall.

2019 Bits to Bytes Awardees include:

Awardee: Boston Children’s Hospital
Principal Investigator: Tomas Kirchhausen
Industry Partner(s): Sanofi, Sana
Project: Image Informatics: Very Large Datasets in High-Resolution Visualization of Subcellular Dynamics

Awardee: Brigham and Women’s Hospital
Principal Investigator: Rulla Tamimi
Industry Partner(s): PathAI
Project: Integration of Pathology Images With Large Cohort Studies: Data Science

Awardee: Brigham and Women’s Hospital
Principal Investigator: Kevin Elias
Industry Partner(s): Abcam
Project: Serum miRNA Neural Networks for Early Diagnosis of Cancers in Women

Awardee: Broad Institute
Principal Investigator: Anne Carpenter
Industry Partner(s): Amgen, AstraZeneca, Bayer, Biogen, Janssen, Merck KGaA, Servier
Project: Accelerating drug discovery via the Joint Undertaking for Morphological Profiling with Cell Painting (JUMP-CP)

Awardee: Harvard Medical School
Principal Investigator: Marcia Haigis
Industry Partner(s): Agilent Technologies
Project: Integrating Metabolomics and Big Data to Improve Cancer Therapy

Awardee: Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Principal Investigator: Curtis Huttenhower
Industry Partner(s): Flagship Pioneering VL55
Project: The Microbiome in Chronic Disease Management and Population Health

Awardee: Northeastern University
Principal Investigator: Steven Lopez
Industry Partner(s): Kebotix
Project: In Silico Design of an Array of Multicolor, Hybrid Fluorescent and Photodynamic Chromophores for Cancer Surgery and Light-Activated Therapy

Awardee: Broad Institute
Principal Investigator: Anthony Philippakis
Industry Partner(s): Bayer
Project: Data-driven Approaches to Cardiovascular Diseases: New Tools and Algorithms for Leveraging Large-scale Biobank Data.

Awardee: University of Massachusetts Medical
Principal Investigator: Matthew Gounis
Industry Partner(s): Gentuity LLC
Project: Artificial Intelligence in High-Resolution Neurovascular Imaging for Improving the Treatment of Stroke

About the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center
The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) is an economic development investment agency dedicated to supporting the growth and development of the life sciences in Massachusetts, home to the most verdant and productive life sciences ecosystem in the world.  Through public-private funding initiatives, the MLSC supports innovation, research and development, commercialization, and manufacturing activities in the fields of biopharma, medical device, diagnostics and digital health.  Since its creation in 2007, the MLSC has strategically deployed over $700 million in Massachusetts, through a combination of grants, loans, capital infrastructure investments, tax incentives and workforce programs.  These investments have created thousands of jobs and propelled the development of new therapies, devices and scientific advancements that are improving patient health and well-being in Massachusetts and beyond.