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  • Bob Knight

Medical Marijuana, Living to 150 & More

Dozens of scientists, physicians, executives and entrepreneurs from around the world came together to share research, foster conversations and shine a light on Westchester County’s burgeoning biotech sector, at the Innovation in Research 2018 symposium, presented by the Westchester Biotech Project.

The event, held this month at Purchase College, SUNY, featured global authorities who discussed potentially revolutionary medical developments, among which are: the benefits of medical marijuana; stem cells in pain management and recovery; and the possibilities of living a longer, healthier life through cutting edge approaches to treating disease.

A common theme throughout the symposium was the region’s already active community, a collaborative milieu of scientists, educational institutions, venture capitalists and businesses. The Westchester Biotech Project is a key convener, and is developing a series of goals that reflect partners’ opportunities and challenges. By fostering cross-talk and action planning among regional thought leaders, the WBP is leveraging a model developed by other biotech hotbeds in Cambridge, San Francisco, Research Triangle Park, and European clusters.

The symposium’s keynote speaker was Dr. Nir Barzilai, a global expert on aging. He spoke of finding “longevity genes” that can impact overall health and delay the onset of specific diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. The shift in thinking from disease-specific to overall healthy aging, he estimates, could save billions in health care costs while dramatically improving the lives of older people. “In the next decade, we are going to change our lives and our economy,” he said, “and we may see more people living 150 years or more.” Dr. Barzilai leads the Longevity Genes Project at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He is a founding member of CohBar, a Cambridge-based growth company addressing age-related diseases with mitochondrially based therapeutics (MBTs).

The Westchester Biotech Project was formed last year as a borderless nonprofit organization supporting cross-silo initiatives to enhance human health. Its Innovation in Research Symposium is the organization’s annual event for connecting the region’s science brain trust with resources for international impact. Among its visionary goals is developing the Rare Disease Hub for international researchers in Westchester County.

“Our goal is to foster conversations and encourage the cross-pollination of thought leadership,” said WBP co-founder and chair Michael Welling of Meridian Risk Management. “With the wealth of leadership in life science companies, universities, hospitals, and supporting professionals and developers, Westchester is ripe for significant and profound growth. Our role is to provide flexible infrastructure for smart ideas to emerge.

“When researchers, engineers and data scientists focus their energies on developing new therapies, they collaborate across the county and around the globe. We provide the highly attractive environment for international researchers new to the US marketplace of ideas.” Welling added.

Other highlights included:

  • New life-enhancing treatments for people with chronic neurological challenges that were once insurmountable were discussed by Dianna Willis, Ph.D., associate director, Burke Neurological Institute. “We need to think differently,” Dr. Willis said of traditional therapies for brain and spinal chord injuries. “We can fix the neurological hardware, and by doing so, we can cure impairment.” As a result, it’s possible for people to live healthier and better lives after enduring serious brain trauma, stroke and spinal chord injuries.

  • The development of a regional hub for researchers who are addressing some of the most complex and promising discoveries. Antonio Molina-Pachon, Ph.D., founder and CEO, GenCo Pharma is a scientist and entrepreneur developing solutions for rare diseases and cancer. “By working with the Westchester Biotech Project to build the Rare Disease Hub, we can leverage the region’s institutions, access to capital, and economical real estate” he said. “There is the potential for all of the parts to be connected.”

  • Placentas contain healing properties and the potential for developing stem cell based therapies to help the body heal itself. Karine Kleinhaus, MD, Divisional Vice President, North America, Pluristem Therapeutics said that in using placentas, therapies can mimic a cell’s natural environment and rebuild muscle, which can aid in a host of treatments and rehabilitations.

  • There are benefits of integrating medical marijuana and cannabis products into high quality health care. Stephen Dahmer, M.D., chief medical officer at Vireo Health, an expert in treating patients with cannabis-based medical products, said that medical marijuana is safe and can provide an alternative or complement to more addictive and potentially deadly opioids to treat pain, sleep issues, and anxiety. “We know it’s effective,” he said, “and it could save $165.2 million in lower prescription costs.” A fellow of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, Dr. Dahmer has examined the relationships between plants and people, working closely with diverse cultures and documenting their uses of medicinal plants.

Also at the symposium, Neil DeLuca, CEO of Fareri Associates, provided an update on the proposed North 60 project, a $1.2 billion multi-million square-foot biotechnology and research center. He praised WBP for bringing together experts in such a forum, and underscored the benefits of developing a science village, complete with housing, office space and laboratories.

“You give us a lot of hope, and you give us a lot of insight,” he said. “We’re committed. We’re investing money and we’re ready because the time is right. Too many of our smart regional students are going to Boston, the West Coast, and the Carolinas.”

Since launching in 2017, WBP has gathered several hundred regional stakeholders through roundtables, symposia, and webinars. Experts and innovators from the region’s large and impressive biotechnology community are contributing their big ideas and lessons learned from initiatives across multiple sectors.

Joanne Gere, Westchester Biotech Project’s co-founder and executive director, has been working for most of her career to bring together researchers across the therapeutics pipeline with resources to help them succeed. “The regional community’s scientists, medical researchers and venture capitalists are already collaborating on the next great scientific breakthroughs, treatments and cures. Our effort is to increase positive friction and stimulate action right here while nurturing the next generation.”

On July 18, WBP is hosting a Rare Disease Symposium at Iona College.

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