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Updated 10:00 AM April 6, 2009
 

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Innovation Partnership targets deadly diseases

Cancer, diabetes, strep infections and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's are the first targets of a novel program to shepherd promising biomedical discoveries from Life Sciences Institute (LSI) labs to the marketplace.

The LSI Innovation Partnership uses philanthropic gifts to bridge the critical funding gap — known to biomedical researchers and venture capitalists as the Valley of Death — between laboratory discovery and commercialization.

The program was launched last year with the goal of raising $10 million to support LSI discoveries. To date, donors have pledged about $2 million.

Four projects recently were selected for first-round funding totaling $680,000.

"The partnership brings to our faculty both the funds and the tool kit to take innovative, collaborative studies to the next level," says Alan Saltiel, the Mary Sue Coleman Director of the Life Sciences Institute. "The projects are already off to a fast start, especially with the assistance of our external business partners."

The Innovation Partnership is charting a new course toward commercialization, and it's doing so in several ways.

One is its reliance on philanthropic organizations and individual donors to bridge the funding gap. Another is its adoption of a team approach that uses industry mentors and other experts to help guide LSI researchers as they usher their discoveries toward the marketplace.

In the Innovation Partnership program, each funded team is paired with mentors who are nationally renowned science/business executives and venture capitalists. They include Dr. James Niedel, managing director of New Leaf Venture Partners, a health care venture-investing firm.

"Although there are plenty of breakthroughs coming out of university biology programs across the country, there isn't enough money to fund all the good ones," Niedel says.

"The Innovation Partnership is a way of bridging that gap," says Niedel, former chief science and technology officer at GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceutical.

The other Innovation Partnership mentors are Dr. Jeffrey Leiden, a partner at Clarus Ventures; Frank McCormick, director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center & Cancer Research Institute at the University of California, San Francisco; Craig Parker, a senior vice president at Proteolix Inc.; and David Walt, a Tufts University chemistry professor and co-founder of Illumina Inc.

In addition to the mentors, the four newly funded LSI teams have hired research scientists with industrial experience and have contracted with scientists outside academia. The Office of Technology Transfer, the Medicinal Chemistry program, and various biotechnology companies and pharmaceutical corporations also will provide guidance.

"This team approach will help LSI researchers avoid many of the pitfalls that can derail even the most promising projects before they reach the marketplace," Saltiel says. "It is really extending our collaborative model to bring business know-how to these projects."

The four first-round Innovation Partnership projects and their principal investigators are:

• "Developing Novel Inhibitors of Metastasis," Dr. Stephen Weiss. One-year award: $250,000. Weiss is a research professor at LSI, the Upjohn Professor of Medicine and Oncology, and chief of Molecular Medicine and Genetics at the Medical School.

• "Heat Shock Protein 70 as a Target for Neurodegenerative Disease," Jason Gestwicki. One-year award: $100,000. Gestwicki is a research assistant professor at LSI and an assistant professor of pathology at the Medical School.

• "Development of Protein Kinase Inhibitors for the Treatment of Metabolic Disease," Alan Saltiel. One-year award: $150,000. Saltiel also is the John Jacob Abel Collegiate Professor in the Life Sciences.

• "Small Compound Inhibitors of Streptokinase Expression as a Novel Therapeutic Approach to Group A Strep Infections," Dr. David Ginsburg. One-year award: $180,000. Ginsburg is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, the James V. Neel Distinguished University Professor of Internal Medicine and Human Genetics, a research professor at LSI and the Warner-Lambert/Parke-Davis Professor of Medicine.

Projects are selected based on the strength of the science and the potential for commercialization. The Weiss and Ginsburg projects were chosen by a committee of internal and external experts; the Saltiel and Gestwicki projects were funded directly by a donor.

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