If the discoveries taking place in academic research laboratories are not translated into products and technologies that can reach and benefit end-users, these discoveries fail to fulfill their potential impact. Yet too often, researchers lack the skills, knowledge and connections—or simply the funding—to translate their findings for the market.
Investments such as WEDC’s $400,000 grant to the Therapeutic Accelerator Program (TAP) at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) help bridge this gap by providing funding specifically for accelerating the translational phase of therapeutic development.
The accelerator has already funded a wide variety of projects with the potential for significant impact on health—for example, projects supported for commercialization during FY19 included anti-parasitic medication, cardiac oncology, treatment of therapy-resistant tumors, therapies for anxiety and depression, a mechanical pump that prevents blood clots in heart failure patients, and anti-inflammatory and antioxidant molecules for anti-aging applications.
The accelerator experienced a 72% increase in proposals submitted in FY19 compared to the prior year and expects to see a continued increase in interest since the WEDC grant has allowed TAP to broaden eligibility beyond MCW faculty, says TAP Program Manager Ranjit Verma.
TAP, which is part of the MCW Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology’s Drug Discovery Center, allows scientists to pursue research questions that other funding sources might view as too risky, says Verma.
“You can’t predict whether a new therapy will work until you’ve tested it,” he says. “Our program gives researchers the bandwidth to test their ideas out.”
Even if experiments sometimes don’t pan out, they can lead the investigators in fruitful new directions. One experiment tested out a drug that worked well in animals, only to demonstrate that it didn’t work well for humans, but the results led the researcher to focus on a different target—ruling out one potential therapy but guiding the researcher to focus on another.
Verma notes that TAP emphasizes making the process simpler and more transparent. To apply for TAP funding, researchers simply submit a one-page proposal. The proposals then undergo a two-step review process: first, they are reviewed for merit, soundness, impact and potential, and then the top-ranking applicants are invited to make an in-person presentation to the advisory committee, which evaluates these presentations based on the strength of the science behind them, potential therapeutic impact, and overall merit. In consultation with TAP staff and the investigator, the advisory committee determines the scope and goals of the project; the program manager is then responsible for execution, monitoring and reporting progress.
The grant from WEDC enabled TAP to expand eligibility beyond MCW investigators to accept applications from anyone affiliated with an academic institution in the southeast Wisconsin region, thus broadening the program’s impact and amplifying the research taking place across the region—as well as encouraging cross-institutional and industry-academic collaboration.
“WEDC’s investment in MCW’s TAP program is a significant gain for southeast Wisconsin,” says Vincent Rice, vice president of sector strategy development for WEDC. “The fund will allow MCW’s program and facilities to reach a larger education community while enabling growth of the entire state’s drug discovery capabilities. This is a major expansion of Wisconsin’s biohealth footprint.”
The WEDC funds came in the form of a Targeted Industry Project Grant. The program offers a continuum of services that advance targeted, high-growth business consortia and industry, culminating over time in the development, diversification and growth of sectors that provide sustained, high-quality jobs, continued innovation and GDP growth for Wisconsin.
TAP evaluates its impact based on new companies formed and intellectual property generated, as well as grant applications received. During FY19, one new company was formed and one patent application submitted—both related to the prevention of blood clots in heart failure patients requiring a mechanical pump. This technology has the power to not only save patients from unnecessary surgeries but also to save lives, Verma notes.
Under the WEDC grant, TAP will also carry out workforce development activities to cultivate the next generation of biohealth workers in southeastern Wisconsin. In addition to the six postdoctoral fellows TAP mentors, the program will host a two-day workshop to educate researchers on the practical steps of getting their products and therapies to consumers. The workshop will cover a variety of topics, including market research and understanding consumer needs, scaling production of pharmaceuticals to larger volumes, dealing with regulatory concerns, and development approaches and strategies.
“By educating the next generation on the practical aspects of translational development, we are contributing to taking research findings out of the lab and into the world,” says Verma.