Translating research to the masses
Date: June 1, 2011
The major goal of all of Johns Hopkins medical school research is to help patients. The only problem, say Barbara Slusher and Jeff Rothstein, is that Hopkins and other academic centers aren’t equipped to take science from researchers’ labs all the way to the finish line of producing a new therapy. That process—transforming an interesting compound that might work on cells or mice in the lab to a drug that people take to treat a disease—requires a multitude of steps usually handled by the pharmaceutical industry.
“We basic researchers usually don’t know how to modify a chemical so that it’s better absorbed or makes it into the brain,” says Rothstein, a neurologist and neurobiologist who studies the neurodegenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and is the director of the Johns Hopkins Brain Science Institute (BSI). “We also don’t deal with the regulatory issues to get that compound through a clinical trial and make it available for patients.”
In the past, pharmaceutical industry scientists developed their own compounds, then ushered them through the process that results in a drug, explains Slusher, a neuropharmacologist who spent 18 years in various executive positions in the pharmaceutical industry. Today, however, “many pharmaceutical companies are looking to externalize that research and development part of their business,” she says, “so they’re coming to academic medical centers to license the discoveries of those scientists.”
The timing couldn’t be better for Johns Hopkins. In 2009, the BSI began a neurotranslational program to identify its scientists’ most promising discoveries and find industry partners interested in taking them through the process of becoming a drug. Rothstein, director of the new program, and his colleagues hired Slusher as its chief scientific officer. She then hired 20 scientists from the pharmaceutical industry with expertise in various areas of drug development, including medicinal chemistry, assay development, animal pharmacology and toxicology, and drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics.
The newly hired scientists review the work of Hopkins’ 500 faculty who conduct neuroscience research, focusing on work that might result in new pharmaceuticals. Teaming with a faculty member producing promising work, the scientists work together to shuttle candidate compounds along the development pathway.
So far, they’ve initiated five new drug discovery programs with Hopkins researchers, in areas ranging from multiple sclerosis to brain cancer.
Right now, Slusher says, it’s the only program of its kind at Hopkins, but she expects that other areas of research beyond neuroscience will catch the bug as well. “We believe this is the best model to ensure our discoveries are translated into beneficial medicines for our patients.”
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