Driving Discovery

AACP Article

Collaborating with industry, pharmacy schools are turning academic findings into commercial products.

By Athena Ponushis

Schools of pharmacy are moving biomedical technologies from the lab to the market, turning novel discoveries into better health for their communities. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is helping schools do this, awarding grants to connect scientists to investors, which connects to the overall goal of identifying innovative promising technologies and advancing them toward commercialization. Scientists see how to navigate commercialization, while investors find the best ideas for health products.

The NIH Centers for Accelerated Innovations (NCAI) and NIH Research Evaluation and Commercialization Hubs (REACH) combine the strengths of academia, the federal government and the private sector, speeding up the development of scientific breakthroughs into commercial products. Last October, the NIH announced it was awarding $20 million to fund five new hubs to further accelerate the translation of academic discoveries into new drugs, devices, diagnostics and therapeutics, so such discoveries can reach the people who need them.

“The NIH realized they could not just fund the work for the discovery itself, but they had to facilitate the commercialization of the discovery into an actual product,” said Dr. Linda Dwoskin, professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Kentucky College of Pharmacy. “That’s a huge step that was needed for a long time and I am so happy that it’s happening now because I think a lot more discoveries won’t just fade away, they will actually make it to people.”

The University of Kentucky was named one of the new REACH awardees, leading the Kentucky Network for Innovation & Commercialization (KYNETIC), a public-private consortium involving the University of Louisville and other academic institutions, as well as the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development. Other awardees included the Rutgers Optimizes Innovation (ROI) Program; Midwest Biomedical Accelerator Consortium (MBArC), a collaboration between the University of Missouri and the University of Kansas; Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus REACH Hub; and the Washington Entrepreneurial REACH Hub, a partnership between the University of Washington and the Seattle Children’s Center.

The new hubs are scouting for biomedical projects and product development experts are sifting through the search. Hubs will fund projects that look promising, providing entrepreneurial education and project management support, helping academic innovators validate the impact of their discoveries and bring their technologies to market. While new hubs are eager to translate their research, older hubs founded in 2015 have already felt the benefit of the REACH award, and as their projects move into clinical trials, they are working commercialization into their culture.

“Biomedical research is very good but it can only help people when the results of that research are commercialized,” said Dr. Vadim Gurvich, associate director of the Institute for Therapeutics Discovery and Development and co-principal investigator for the University of Minnesota REACH award. “So the whole idea, at least in our hub, we saw the money as one part of it, but the bigger issue was changing the faculty mindset, helping them realize that unless their inventions are commercialized, they cannot really help anybody.”

Nurturing Innovators With Mentors

Last December, REACH award recipients gathered at a NIH launch meeting, and Dwoskin, a co-principal investigator on Kentucky’s award, saw the story unfold of how a professor’s idea was commercialized and saved a baby boy. The product helped treat pulmonary hypertension in newborns by creating a new delivery system to change how babies receive nitric oxide therapy. The company, Third Pole Therapeutics, attended the meeting to discuss their work, as did a young man who received nitric oxide through such means to help him breathe as a baby. Dwoskin said the story was impressive and inspiring, speaking to all the REACH award aims to do: “Improve human health from an academic discovery.”

It’s too early for Dwoskin to discuss outcomes or elaborate on what projects are in the KYNETIC pipeline (submitted projects are under review and selections will be funded in July) but she can expand on the aim: “The goal is to nurture innovations and innovators by providing funding, mentoring and education, introducing innovators to a network of relevant expertise to move products that have potential to improve human health across the divide.”

Achieving that goal rests on partnerships. “Our project is to network with the entire state and make everyone partners in this endeavor,” Dwoskin said. “When the state is behind the effort it makes a tremendous difference.” KYNETIC will receive $4 million from the NIH and the state will contribute $450,000 per year for the four-year project.

REACH success stories range from treating brain tumors to developing snoring apps, as the program has funded over 150 technologies. One product advancing from the University of Louisville’s last round of REACH funding is a baby bottle that can record a mother singing to help a baby who may have trouble feeding. The bottle, which has a feeding sensor and musical app, was the result of a music therapist/professor working with a speech-language pathologist, using music to encourage little ones who may be hesitant to drink from a bottle. “I thought that was pretty amazing,” Dwoskin said. “Another example of how inspiring collaboration can be.”

Such innovative collaborations make it to the private sector because of the mentorship opportunities inherent in the REACH hub design. “Innovators are going to learn how to write a proposal that’s different from the grants they typically write,” Dwoskin said. “They are going to learn how to do a short pitch in front of investors. They are going to have a lot of connections to the business community that they would not have any other way.”

A Culture of Commercialization

Dr. Carolyn Fairbanks, professor and associate dean for research at the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy, has felt the benefit of the REACH award as a faculty member recipient. “It provided a catalyst to do the bread-and-butter work that can be hard to find funding for, but important to meet those milestone steps to attract industrial partners or other investments to move it along the pipeline for commercialization and ultimately, human use,” Fairbanks said. “The mentoring and business training was unique and transformative.”

Fairbanks was involved in two MN-REACH supported projects. One project focused on an analgesic that she and her team learned was effective for pain relief in a variety of conditions, but not likely to have abuse potential like opioids. While she had preliminary data that suggested that, she was not able to take her assessments to the next level until REACH allowed her to do the pharmacokinetic studies to engage industrial partners, who are now working with Fairbanks on the next step.

The goal is to nurture innovations and innovators by providing funding, mentoring and education, introducing innovators to a network of relevant expertise to move products that have potential to improve human health across the divide.

Dr. Linda Dwoskin

Her second project focused on another analgesic that she thinks may be more attractive for its treatment of both chronic pain and drug addiction. “It works on the same mechanisms in the brain and so we may have a dually effective compound,” Fairbanks said. “That’s the goal.” REACH enabled her team to do the experiments that became part of an application that resulted in favorable review by the Department of Defense, which has awarded more money to conduct safety and toxicity studies, the last step before clinical trial in humans.

A third MN-REACH project allowed Fairbanks’ colleagues at the college of pharmacy to make progress on a concept regarding the intranasal delivery of anti-epileptic drugs. Faculty were able to move from in vitro studies to in vivo studies, which has attracted the collaboration of a company interested in developing it into a nasal spray for both human and veterinary epilepsy medications.

“We might have been able to do this work with philanthropy, but having the excitement and engagement of our mentors has really been accelerating for us,” Fairbanks said. “It has helped us to better understand and strategize our next steps.”

Therein lies the impetus for the cultural shift at the University of Minnesota. “Support commercialization, that’s my message to deans,” Gurvich said. “Invest in commercialization. That is very important because the NIH programs are good, but once they come to the end, what do you do? That’s the dilemma we are facing right now. We are figuring out how to sustain it.”

Athena Ponushis is a freelance writer based in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.