How Finding Industry Partners Can Lead to New Treatments
Date: October 5, 2012
Many scientists and technology transfer experts speak about a place they call the Valley of Death. You won’t find it on any map, though, because it refers instead to the gap between a scientific discovery and its application in the form of a medical treatment—a gap where innovations often languish.
Montserrat Capdevila devotes a good part of her time to helping Johns Hopkins scientists travel through this terrain, which she prefers to call the Grand Canyon. And recently, 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 helps faculty commercialize their research. “Faculty now 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 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, and she’s also shown that hydrogel helps mice regenerate skin and hair in burned regions, research she’s conducted with John Harmon, a surgeon at the Johns Hopkins Burn Center, and pathologist Charles Steenbergen. To continue her work, Gerecht is applying for federal grants, but she’s also seeking potential industry sponsors.
Still, financial partnership with industry does raise some profound questions. What spurs innovation? An environment that fosters unfettered intellectual freedom? Or is it the promise of a drug, device or therapy that might benefit humanity—and perhaps bring financial reward? Can a university cultivate an environment with room for both?
Traditionally, says Capdevila, “the mission of academia was not to conduct research with the intent to make money.” But this also meant that Johns Hopkins may have relinquished millions of dollars in potential royalties that could have been used to help support not only its research, but its teaching and patient care missions. Restriction enzymes, for example, which were discovered at Hopkins and placed in the public domain, have become one of the most essential tools of the biotechnology industry.
In recent years, however, flat NIH grant funding has forced many scientists to look elsewhere for financial support. Many private companies also have seen their research budgets decline. As a result, says Capdevila, “industry is now looking for creative ways to partner with academia.”
“The FDA only approves about 20 new chemical entities each year as drugs,” says Philip Cole, director of the Department of Pharmacology and Molecular Sciences. “But we want to make a difference in people’s lives, to find drugs for cancer and other diseases.”
Cole also serves as an adviser to a biotech company that aims to develop novel drugs based on research that he and others have conducted. “The hope for such a small enterprise,” he says, “is that progress will be made that can ultimately lead to more treatments.”
A Growing Trend
Data from the Johns Hopkins Office of Technology Transfer show that between 2006 and 2011:
- invention disclosures the office received from Hopkins scientists increased from 244 to 409
- signed license agreements jumped from 52 to 159
- startup companies increased from four to 19
- the number of staff in the tech transfer office grew from 34 to 54