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Building on a system of outreach, collaboration

WHEN we think of medical advances, we think of a lonely scientist and an isolated eureka moment. One of them happened in 1928, when Alexander Fleming noticed that some mold accidentally found growing on a culture dish seemed to keep bacteria at bay. But only in 1945, after numerous others in academia and industry had worked to isolate, manufacture, and deliver penicillin, did the wonder drug begin to save lives and change the world.

Medical innovation has always depended upon the work of many people with many eureka moments. The dramatic medical advances of the last 30 years are the result of massive coordinated research efforts wholly unlike Fleming's haphazard accident.

Medical research today is a communal enterprise unfolding within a grand network. As Massachusetts seeks to nourish the local biotech industry, policy makers need to keep the collaborative nature of the industry in mind.

The economics of the enterprise rely on steady advances in science through a long pipeline. Basic discoveries, often made in university research laboratories and funded with government dollars from the National Institutes of Health or National Science Foundation, don't languish anymore; biotechnology, pharmaceutical, and medical device companies seize upon them eagerly.

Within this information-intensive network, biotechnology companies are the crucial connectors -- the drivers of medical innovation and the translators of theoretical breakthroughs into practical benefits for society.

In the 1980s, "biotechnology" typically referred to companies involved in recombinant DNA-based drug research. Today the term is more broadly defined around companies developing innovations across the biological and medical fields. Biotech healthcare companies work on injectable protein drugs, diagnostics, medical devices, vaccines, and pills.

The collaborative nature of the industry is particularly beneficial to Massachusetts, which is arguably the world center of life-science research today. The state is awash in great universities that justifiably attract a disproportionate share of NIH dollars and Nobel prizes. Surrounding these institutions are premier medical schools and hospitals that bring innovations to patients. This network has given rise to one of the largest, densest clusters of innovative biotechnology companies on the planet, with tens of thousands of jobs in a rapidly growing and evolving life-sciences supercluster.

Outward-looking cooperation and urgent innovation have been hallmarks of the local biotech industry from the start. Founded in 1978, the premier biotech company Biogen knitted together an improbable alliance of government-funded academics, discoveries of a German subsidiary and other firms, and forward-looking NIH-funded clinical investigators. This partnership, fueled by monstrously large amounts of Biogen money, brought forward Avonex, the breakthrough drug for multiple sclerosis.

The same spirit of outreach and cooperation drove Genzyme CEO Henri Termeer to pull together leaders from all sectors of the healthcare industry. In 2002 the New England Healthcare Institute was formed, giving a unique collaborative voice to not only biotech and pharmaceutical companies, but also to academic health centers, hospitals, medical device companies, employers, payers, patient groups, and others. (I am on NEHI's executive committee.)

Success builds on itself: This confluence of academia, medicine, and biotech has prompted most of the world's pharmaceutical companies to establish research and development operations in Massachusetts.

The system, of course, is far from perfect. There are a myriad of ways for conflict to arise along the way to introducing innovative medicines. Disagreements around patent rights and other issues, for example, can result in delays in the introduction of life-saving therapies while draining resources from drug development. We need to continue to find ways to manage conflict and align interests.

Policy makers, meanwhile, can also play a key role in enabling this network to flourish and remain competitive in the face of local, national, and global challenges. Not only do we need to find new ways to ensure that all patients have equal access to medicine, but we need to invest in our talent pool and create incentives for innovation.

At a time of unparalled medical breakthroughs, Massachusetts is a major center of medical innovation. As likely as not, a treatment you will depend on to extend and enhance your life in the next 20 years will come out of a vibrant network of Massachusetts laboratories. And this is no accident.

Joshua Boger is president and CEO of Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Cambridge.