November 10, 2009

SDSU BioScience Center UpData

By Roberta Gottlieb, M.D.

The entrepreneurial side of the BioScience Center is emerging. My vision for the BSC is to improve health through strategies of basic research, public health measures, and commercial development. In this article, I'd like to focus on the commercial development aspects. It was an important lesson for me to learn, early in my career, that moving a great discovery from the laboratory bench to the patient's bedside is a long, chancy, and remarkably costly process. And nobody will run that risk and front the money for development of new therapies unless there is a good chance of winning the biotech lottery with that discovery.

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Academicians face many challenges in commercializing their discoveries. They must balance the need to publish against the need to protect their intellectual property through patents. They may be excellent scientists but naive about the process of partnering with industry to develop their idea. San Diego is a particularly fertile environment for biotechnology, with many fledgling and thriving companies and a wealth of expertise. Some of that expertise has been harnessed by CONNECT, a non-profit organization whose purpose is to provide guidance on how to commercialize local research-based discoveries. Springboard, one CONNECT program, helps mentor academic researchers on how to present their discoveries to the business sector. BIOCOM is another organization that focuses on initiatives to support the life sciences community in Southern California. Through affiliations with these entities, the BSC hopes to accelerate the commercialization of our faculty's discoveries.

A steering committee consisting of Michael Rondelli (Director of Technology Transfer), Gail Naughton (Dean of the College of Business Administration), Sanford Ehrlich (QUALCOMM Executive Director of Entrepreneurship for the Entrepreneurial Management Center(EMC)), Susan Baxter, (Executive Director, CSUPERB), and myself established an internal program for discovery development, called VITA: Vertically Integrated Technology Development. Our goal is to bring together business expertise in the biotech sector with faculty who need guidance to move their early-stage discoveries down the road towards commercialization. Corporate partners that contribute funds to support specific projects will have first access to intellectual property and favorable licensing terms.

We have some highly enterprising and visionary faculty already: Ed Morgan, Kim Finley, and I are already involved in biotech startups, and two patents have been filed by BSC faculty in the past two years.

Dr. Ed. Morgan

Ed Morgan, who spent a number of years in industry at BD Biosciences, co-founded a company, PROMMUNE, with long-time collaborator Dr. Sam Sanderson, Associate Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center, to develop vaccine therapies based on a novel adjuvant (immune booster molecule). With support from the University of Nebraska and in conjunction with their technology transfer office the company holds 10 patents. The company was founded on and the prime directive is that it is "science driven."

To date angel investor funding and NIH have supported the research and development. The scope of the company is to provide a platform for the generation of vaccines for veterinary and human medicine. The company has been successful in generating anti-nicotine and anti-methamphetamine vaccines. In collaboration with scientists at SDSU, University of Texas, and University of Queensland, the company is employing its novel technology for the development of vaccines to Valley Fever, MRSA, cancer, and parasitic diseases.

Kim Finley recognized the potential value of the fruit fly as an effective drug discovery tool to identify compounds that could benefit patients with Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases. She has joined forces with Expression Drug Designs (EDD), a startup led by Greg Harris in Biology. She heads the Aging and Neural Degeneration division of EDD and has obtained her first SBIR grant to set up a drug screening system. Based on promising early findings, she is preparing to submit a second SBIR to extend these studies in collaboration with Dr. Morgan.

The serendipitous discovery that chloramphenicol could protect the heart from ischemic injury led Mark Yeager, Paul Wentworth, Jr., and myself to found Radical Therapeutix, Inc. in 2005. Subsequent work has led to the identification and patenting of several small molecules that can reduce injury from a heart attack. Current research to test the drugs in a porcine model is being done in collaboration with new faculty member Robert Mentzer, Jr., and is funded by an NIH small business innovative research (SBIR) grant. Radical Therapeutix recently won Best Overall at the Tech Coast Angels annual Quick Pitch event, where entrepreneurs have two minutes to present their company to an audience of potential investors; their pitches are graded on content and style.

These startups exemplify the translational thrust of the BioScience Center, and we hope that the participation of corporate partners who contribute expertise and limited funding will accelerate the commercialization of these technologies.