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Commercialization: No Longer a Dirty Word

Translating discoveries into products and profits was once a remote aspect of academic research. Not anymore.

July 2012—Many scientists and technology transfer professionals speak about a place called the “Valley of Death.” You won’t find this valley on any map. It’s a metaphorical place that refers to the gap between a scientific discovery and its application in the form of a medical treatment. Innovations often languish in this translational void.

Montserrat Capdevila devotes a good part of her time helping scientists transit through the Valley, although she prefers to call it the Grand Canyon. And in recent years, more and more scientists have been eager for her assistance.

“In the past five years, things have changed tremendously,” says Capdevila, director of sales, marketing and international relations at the Johns Hopkins Office of Technology Transfer, which is responsible for helping faculty commercialize their research. “Faculty now want to find out about industry. They want to know how to patent, how to start up companies, how to connect more with companies.”

Sharon Gerecht is one example. An assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, Gerecht has developed a special biological material called hydrogel that could help severely burned patients grow healthy new skin. She has shown that hydrogel stimulates the growth of tiny blood vessels in wounded tissue that help nourish newly growing skin. She’s also shown that hydrogel helps mice regenerate new skin and hair in burned regions, research she’s conducted with John Harmon, a surgeon at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Burn Center, and Professor of Pathology Charles Steenbergen.

“I want to move the research forward, to do preclinical testing,” says Gerecht. But that next step—pre-clinical studies in large animals—will require substantial funding. To garner that funding, Gerecht is applying for federal grants. She is also seeking potential sponsors in another quarter: industry.

Johns Hopkins Technology Transfer data show that Gerecht is not alone. Between 2006 and 2011, the number of invention disclosures received by the office from Hopkins scientists increased from 244 to 409; the number of license agreements signed increased from 52 to 159; and the number of startup companies launched increased from four to 19. At the same time, the Tech Transfer office grew from a staff of 34 to 54. “That’s the future,” says Capdevila, “scientists having the opportunity to work with industry hand in hand.”

But this new future also raises some profound questions about the best approach for science. What spurs innovation? Is it an environment that fosters unfettered intellectual freedom, one that values learning for the sake of learning? Or is it the promise of a tangible product at some time in the future, a drug, device or therapy that might benefit humanity, and perhaps bring financial reward? Can a university cultivate an environment that has room for both?

Johns Hopkins’ founders modeled their institution after the German university system, which espoused the ideology of wissenchaft, or “pure learning”—knowledge for its own sake. According to this view, research and scholarship would produce material benefits for society, but not necessarily in the short term. “It sometimes pays to send our argosies across the seas, to make investments with an eye toward slow-but-sure returns,” Daniel Coit Gilman proclaimed in his inaugural address as the first president of Johns Hopkins. Others voiced a stricter interpretation. 
Basil Gildersleeve, Hopkins’s first professor of Greek once declared: “The word useful should be banished from the university vocabulary.” Some of Gildersleeve’s science colleagues agreed, fearing that goal-oriented research would sully the ethos of pure knowledge and that commercial investment in research would indenture scientists and hinder intellectual freedom.

“The mission of academia was not to conduct research with the intent to make money,” says Capdevila. “The purely academic way of thinking was, ‘I’m putting my science in the public domain for the sake of knowledge and the public good.’” But this stance also meant that Johns Hopkins may have relinquished many millions of dollars in potential royalties by placing in the public domain discoveries and inventions such as restriction enzymes, one of the most essential tools of the biotechnology industry.

In recent decades, several factors have changed that stance, for Johns Hopkins and other research universities.

One key turning point was the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which gave universities greater control of the intellectual property emerging from federally funded research at their institutions. The Act also encouraged universities to collaborate with industry, file patents and seek ways to commercialize scientific innovations. In recent years, government agencies, private foundations and other sponsors of scientific research have required more and more that funding recipients demonstrate the potential commercial applications of their work. And in December 2011, the National Institutes of Health formed a new branch called the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS). With a $575 million budget for fiscal year 2012, the center’s mission is to expedite translational medicine by overcoming the “bottlenecks” that slow the transit from lab bench discovery to bedside treatment. 

At the same time, economic factors are also propelling academia and industry toward a common space. NIH grant funding, traditionally one of the major government sponsors of basic science, has flattened in recent years, forcing many scientists to look elsewhere for financial support. At the same time, industries have seen their once fat research budgets decline precipitously. “Industry is now looking for creative ways to partner with academia for early-stage research to refill their product pipelines,” says Capdevila. And cash-strapped university investigators are responding in kind.

As technology transfer assumes a larger role on campus, new questions and challenges arise. For instance, is it, in fact, possible to accelerate the pace of innovation—the “slow-but-sure returns” of science? A 2010 report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that focusing more resources on technology transfer has enhanced innovation. But the report also added this reality check: “The likelihood of success is small” for universities that hope to make money from the commercialization of their research ventures.

Several scientists who have tried out those ventures would agree. One is Philip Cole, director of the Department of Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences. Cole serves as an advisor to a two-year-old biotechnology company called Acylin Therapeutics, which aims to develop novel enzyme-inhibiting drugs. Acylin’s work is based on research that Cole and others conducted at Hopkins, which identified methods for inhibiting key enzymes involved in the pathology of cancer and metabolic diseases.

“We want to make a difference in people’s lives, to find drugs for cancer and metabolic disease,” says Cole. But he says he has no illusions about their chance of success. “The FDA only approves about 20 new chemical entities each year as drugs, despite thousands of ongoing drug discovery efforts in pharma and academia, hundreds of billions of dollars in research and development spent and thousands of clinical trials being carried out worldwide each year.” So “the odds are very low” that Acylin, a company with a few dozen employees and a modest research budget, will identify a drug.

“However, the hope for such a small enterprise is that significant progress will be made that can ultimately aid a process that leads to a drug,” says Cole.

[Credit:] Some of the historical information in this article came from the manuscript “Truth for Its Own Sake: Academic Culture and Technology Transfer at Johns Hopkins University,” by Maryann Feldman and Pierre Desrochers.

--Melissa Hendricks

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