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Mighty Oaks Anticipated from Biotech 'Seed' Grant
Four facility members receive early-stage project funding
The seed is among the original forms of biotechnology. Now, "seed grants" will help propel new biotechnology research at The University of Texas Health Center at Houston.
The University of Texas Health Science Center (UTHealth) Office of Biotechnology is eager to see the mighty fruits of its new seed grant research initiative, which recently made its first awards of approximately $50,000 each to four UT faculty members.
The Biotechnology/Biomedical Engineering Seed Grant Program, sponsored and managed by the Office of Biotechnology (OBT), is an institution-wide initiative to support early-stage projects that have a clearly defined path to sustained funding from private or federal sources.
"Our intent was to fund researchers involved in novel high risk/high reward ventures; research projects for the development of technologies with a clear path to commercialization," says Jodie (Jay) Conyers, Ph.D., director of the Office of Biotechnology, and assistant professor in the Medical School's Department of Internal Medicine. "We were looking for more applied, technology-oriented projects, leading to the development of cutting-edge devices, drugs or diagnostic assays," he explains.
The four projects and their Principal Investigators (PI) are:
- "Liposome nanobubbles for ultrasound controlled bioactive gas delivery for the treatment for stroke," Shaoling Huang, Ph.D., assistant professor, Division of Cardiology, Department of Internal Medicine, UT Medical School. The project aims to develop a non-invasive and more effective treatment for injury caused by blockage of the flow of blood (ischemia) in the brain by delivering drugs to the cerebral circulation using an external ultrasound probe that releases the therapeutic gas from within the microbubbles.
- "Using cartilage to make bone: a new paradigm in tissue engineering," Pauline Duke, Ph.D., professor, Department of Orthodontics, UT Dental Branch. This technology hopes to improve upon the current techniques of bone repair needed for the treatment of skeletal disorders by using the patient's own stem cells, rather than the patient's own limited supply of bone or bone products, to create cartilage-like spheroids that can be implanted directly into the skeletal defects and accelerate healing.
- "Application of data mining analysis techniques to genome-wide association studies," Andrei Rodin, Ph.D., assistant professor, Division of Biostatistics and Epidemiology, UT School of Public Health. This technology is an enhanced tool for analyzing very large data sets of genome data by applying a state-of-the-art software platform based on the Bayesian Network (a belief network model that uses probability theory to manage uncertainty) to analyze data such as gene-specific mutations in order to better correlate complex diseases with specific genes.
- "Clinical validation of salivary breast cancer biomarkers in preparation for use on a non-biochip based platform for cancer detection," Charles Strekfus, D.D.S., M.A., professor, Department of Diagnostic Sciences, UT Dental Branch. This technology will validate a saliva-based assay to detect low levels of protein biomarkers released from cancerous breast tissue in response to tumor formation. This novel approach has the potential of becoming a non-invasive tool for detecting cancer at a much earlier stage, well before a detectable lump is found.
The four PIs will spend the next year accumulating preliminary data needed to get their highly promising projects in biotechnology and/or bioengineering off the ground - projects that may lead to further grant opportunities, sponsored research agreements, external collaborations, development of new intellectual property and/or commercial partnerships.
"This program is designed to help bridge the gap and accelerate data collection and discovery from bench top to clinical practice for some promising research," says Bruce D. Butler, Ph.D., vice president for Research and Technology in the UTHealth Office of Technology Management, who with Peter Davies, M.D., Ph.D., executive vice president for research, helped Conyers establish the seed grant program.
"Competition was steep for the first awards," says Davies. The program attracted nearly 60 applicants representing a wide array of specialties. The competition was open to all health science center faculty, whether they were at the beginning of their research careers or were more seasoned investigators interested in pursuing new theories.
"Each project had to apply a new technology to medicine or improve upon the currently state-of-the-art" says Conyers. "We selected projects that have a clear prospect of attracting extramural funding, projects in which the investigators spelled out the specific next step for the project once their year's grant was over."
Rather than ask the PIs to prepare time-consuming full proposals, the seed program used a two-tiered selection process, asking each applicant to first submit a one-page pre-proposal. From this group, an internal peer review group chose 20 projects that appeared to have the greatest possibility for success, and asked their PIs to submit full proposals. The review committee then scored the 20 and selected the top four for funding.
"What stood out to the committee with these four projects," says Conyers, "is that each had a clearly defined problem that needed new technological solution, each PI had a clear and feasible work plan, and a clearly defined path to commercialization."
"This seed grant program is a pipeline process," says Davies, "an effort to jump-start hands-on research to ensure discoveries and meaningful advances in medical science. We have launched these researchers into the pipeline toward the eventual development of innovative solutions to medical health problems.
"These grants are the first step," agrees Ananth Annapragada, Ph.D., associate professor of Health Information Sciences and one of the members of the peer review selection committee. "They will give the investigators time to refine their projects, leveraging them to get more funding, which will get them to the translation stage," Annapragada says. "The short term goal is to attract more grant funding, but the long-term goal is its development by the private sector into commercial applications."
If you discover, but you don't publish or develop a device-there's going to be no treatment available, says Butler, whose office oversees technology transfer issues such as patents and protection of intellectual property.
"Especially in biotechnology, the technology transfer process must be done right, because without that, there's no incentive for companies to develop products," he says. "With the proper protection of the intellectual property, we can ensure that our researchers and our university will reap the fruit of these new opportunities."
According to both Davies and Butler, the UT Health Science Center at Houston is one of the most active campuses in the University of Texas System in transferring scientific findings from research laboratories into useful products by the commercial sector. Davies says the expansion of biomedical engineering and biotechnology programs and commercialization of research are major priorities at both UT Houston and UT System.
"We are in a true Industrial Revolution in medicine," Butler says, "a revolutionary period of discovery in such areas as genomics, proteomics and personalized medicine."
"Partnerships between universities and private enterprise are nothing new in medical science," Davies says, "and have been a major priority for the National Institutes of Health for the last 10 to 15 years."
Annapragada, who came to academia after 11 years in private industry and has already spun off two companies from his UT research, says that such collaborations make proper use of the best capabilities of both. "In order to translate basic research from the university into clinical applications there are a lot of hurdles to get through, such as safety issues and testing, and even marketing; it's the private sector that knows how to do this."
While there may be financial benefits to these discoveries, says Davies, "the major payoff is in using the capabilities of the private sector to develop and disseminate new approaches to combat and treat disease."
By Fran Dressman for Institutional Advancement
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