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Agilent CTO Darlene Solomon Discusses Creating Value with Long-term R&D in the Life Sciences Industry


March 13, 2008


Darlene Solomon, Agilent chief technology officer, spoke about creating value through long-term research and development (R&D) in the life sciences industry March 12 at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society in New Orleans, La.

Solomon highlighted the critical role of measurement as a cornerstone of scientific progress because it is at the heart of many of the most important and challenging problems in technology and society today. Measurement innovations in life sciences, for example, are driving new understandings of living systems in biotechnology, genomics, proteomics, cellular and systems biology. Such understandings, however, take time to develop.

For example, research on Agilent's DNA microarray platform began 15 years ago in the company's central research laboratory. Initially DNA microarrays were targeted to profile messenger RNA, which codes for the proteins that work in our cells. Today scientists use Agilent's DNA microarrays for a variety of applications, including to identify multiple and missing pieces of chromosomes in cancer cells compared with normal cells, research recently discovered micro RNA, and help define therapy choices for diseases like breast cancer. Over the years, the technology has continued to improve, and is now the foundation for insights and discoveries well-beyond the goals that originally motivated this long-range research.

Darlene J.S. Solomon, Ph.D.
Agilent Chief Technology Officer


Major challenges in the life sciences industry require long-term R&D, Solomon explained. In the pharmaceutical industry drugs are going off patent, squeezing profits as generics hit the market. At the same time, fewer new drugs are making it to market; as many as 50 percent of new drugs fail Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval in Phase III clinical trials.

Failures so late in the development process result in costly losses. In addition, the FDA is leaning more toward safety concerns in drug approvals, driving the need for better toxicology tools and longer approval processes to ensure minimal legal ramifications.

The scientific community, she said, is beginning to reap the benefits of the immense learning in the life sciences over the past decade. In therapeutics, for example, the shift from small chemical molecules to biologicals -- drug candidates based on proteins or nucleic acids, for example-- will bring opportunity and change, but developing and getting these therapies to market requires unique technological, regulatory, clinical and toxicological expertise. Personalized medicine and molecular diagnostics, which promise to improve diagnosis and treatment of disease, are now becoming established in health care, at least at the leading edge.

Just last year the U.S. Federal Drug Administration approved the first test that measures the activity of genes at work. Agendia's MammaPrint(r) a breast cancer prognosis test uses Agilent's gene expression microarray technology. Time Magazine named MammaPrint one of "The Best inventions of the Year" (Nov. 12, 2007).

While measurement has historically occurred in discrete disciplines in physics, chemistry, electrical engineering and biology, today it is rare for any discipline to develop in isolation. For example, development of Agilent microarrays required the integration of physics, biochemistry, molecular biology, surface science, bioinformatics, manufacturing, system design and miniaturization. Solomon challenged the industry to transcend the boundaries of disciplines and organizations and to embrace the convergence of perspectives required to create value with long term R&D.


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