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Using Collaboration and Innovation to Counteract Flat Federal Research Funding

Light bulb by shuttermonkey via FlickrThe $1 trillion spending bill recently passed by Congress may temporarily avert another government shutdown, but research funding is still stagnant, if not falling backward, a story in this week’s The Scientist points out. The overall budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) only increased by 0.5 percent - $150 million was added to last year’s NIH budget of $29.9 billion.

With such astounding shortfalls in funding for biomedical research, Penn Medicine, a key stakeholder of the new Penn Center for Innovation (PCI), is looking for fresh ways to capitalize on high-impact ideas and research in progress by partnering with the private sector. Penn Medicine faculty serve as lead authors for more than 1500 published research papers each year, and ideas for new studies are taking shape all the time. Collaborations with industry represent another tool that faculty use to extend their work even further.

The PCI consolidates and unifies the enterprise previously known as the Penn Center for Technology Transfer with other campus entities charged with commercializing Penn research and development into license agreements, sponsored research agreements, startup companies and other collaborative relationships.

These efforts are a longstanding focus throughout Penn, which is bearing fruit at a time when other sources of capital to support innovation are dwindling. An article in the December issue of Nature Biotechnology describes the overhaul of technology transfer at Penn, noting that the university ranks in the top three in the life sciences compared to other universities, by several measures of tech transfer output, for FY 13 – science licenses/options executed, science licensing income, and number of startups, for example.

At PCI’s first lunchtime talk in a seminar series that focuses on academic-biotech partnerships, Glen Gaulton, PhD, Executive Vice Dean and Chief Scientific Officer, advised the nearly 50 faculty who attended to “start the conversation early” with colleagues and private industry representatives to learn how to commercialize their research findings. Garret FitzGerald, MD, FRS, director of the Institute for Translational Medicine & Therapeutics (ITMAT), and Brian McVeigh, vice president for World Business Development for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), also spoke.

Citing the decline in NIH funding over the last decade, FitzGerald shared an overview of ITMAT’s myriad resources to help faculty engage in internal and external research alliances, from the Penn Medicine BioBank to the Clinical and Translational Research Center to a slate of internal funding sources. As an example of long-term collaboration with the pharmaceutical industry, McVeigh gave a quick overview of the range of GSK-Penn partnerships, from sponsored research agreements in wound healing to postdoctoral and clinical fellowships. For example, Penn Med and Wistar Institute researchers were awarded a grant earlier this month to work with GSK’s Discovery Partnerships with Academia team to test their hypotheses on potential cancer pathways and targets against GSK’s extensive library of compounds. 

Penn Medicine has many other public-private collaborations, and a video shown at PCI’s official launch in late November highlighted several other Perelman examples. For example, Carl June, MD, the Richard W. Vague Professor in Immunotherapy, working in collaboration with Novartis, is using an experimental immunotherapy to treat patients whose blood cancers have returned even in the face of a raft of conventional therapies. James M. Wilson, MD, PhD, professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and director of the Penn Gene Therapy Program, is a scientific advisor and collaborator with ReGenX Biosciences and Dimension Therapeutics. They are developing gene-therapy vectors to deliver treatments for a variety of disorders, from rare lysosomal storage diseases to pandemic flu. And, Jean Bennett, MD, PhD, professor of Ophthalmology and director of the Center for Advanced Retinal and Ophthalmic Therapeutics, is collaborating with Spark Therapeutics and colleagues at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to develop gene-therapy approaches to treat retinal blinding disorders.

A continuing slate of PCI seminars focused around pathways to development and commercialization of research born in Penn's own laboratories and clinics will explore topics including patent policy, tips for creating startup companies spun out of university-based research, and emerging trends in healthcare innovation and commercialization.

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