Today, I went on a tour of the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research (NIBR), which is located just down the road from MIT! I pass this spiffy new building every time I walk to the supermarket or to Harvard and when I found out that they were giving a tour to people from the BioMedical Engineering Society (BMES) I quickly signed up. Novartis is a world-wide pharmaceutical company that is headquartered in Cambridge and but has a major research facility in Basel, Switzerland. The Cambridge location just opened up in 2003 and is home to about 700 scientists.
Ever seen those commercials with the little yellow monsters that live under toe nails? Well, the antifungal agent that the commercial is promoting is called, Lamisil, and it is produced by Novartis. How about Gerber baby food? Yup, made by Novartis. Gas-X (it’s ok, you can admit it)? Ex-Lax? Maalox? Excedrin? No-doz (to finish up your psets, perhaps)? You may also have heard of Gleevec, a miraculous drug that can pretty much cure a rare cancer called Chronic Myeloid Leukemia.
During the tour, I got to see one of the four High Throughput Screening labs that are located in the Cambridge facility. It’s hard to imagine that each one can screen about one million compounds per month! Isn’t technology awesome? Just watching them work was exciting. Each compound is about 1 microliter in volume (way less than a drop!) and is held in a tray with about a thousand holes that are all filled with other compounds. Each tray has a barcode and is moved around by crazy cool robotic arms that shuttle the tray through a battery of tests (pictures below!) Out of the 1 million screened compounds, they find about 20,000 promising ones and then conduct further tests on those. The tour guide said that Novartis expects to have about 14 drugs in testing per year.
Walking into the lobby, you see a giant double helix pattern on the ground and four space-age elevators. The elevators are perfect circles with glass walls, we were told they were the only ones of their kind and subsequently they sometimes have trouble with them closing (not opening, nobody has been trapped, they assured us.) Their conference rooms are also circular, complete with curved white boards that move around the circumference. Basically, everything is shiny and ready to break, I mean use =)
All right, I think that’s enough of an advertisement for now. If you ever get a chance to go to these sorts of labs, you should; it’s awesome to see that your psets can actually teach you stuff that you’ll need to know in the real world. Yay, organic chemistry!