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Event Captures Entrepreneurism Efforts, from the Lab to the Marketplace

Published: May 03, 2009 by By Rachel Bailey, Institutional Advancement

At an event held March 25, University of Texas School of Health Information Sciences (SHIS) researchers got the chance to showcase their research and how it translates into start-up companies.

"A culture of entrepreneurism has been created at the school because in many instances, our expertise, energy and resources can only benefit you if we can turn research advances into market based solutions," said Jack W. Smith, M.D., Ph.D., dean of SHIS.

The event, "From the Lab to the Marketplace," brought members of Leaders of Tomorrow, the Development Board, and others together to learn about the school's leadership in mathematical oncology, a new branch of cancer research and the use of nanoparticles for improved imaging and insulin delivery.

Ananth Annapragada (right) discusses his research with  Robert Shaddox (center) of Winstead Attorneys, (invited by development board member Denis Braham) and Honorary Consul  General John Ellis Jr., (right)  development board member.

Ananth Annapragada (right) discusses his research with Robert Shaddox (center) of Winstead Attorneys, (invited by development board member Denis Braham) and Honorary Consul General John Ellis Jr., (right) development board member.

"One billion dollars and 17 years," Smith said, "These are the cost and time estimates to bring a therapy from laboratory development to the consumer. It's too long and too costly." 

Biomedical informatics and computational bioengineering can dramatically shorten the time it takes and what it costs to move from the discovery of the molecular origin of a disease to a drug or therapy that can be introduced into actual patient care. Much of what SHIS does involves approaching problems from the standpoint of improving the process rather than looking at a disease in isolation. This can create solutions without the redundancies of one-off, disease-specific solutions, according to Smith.

The road to marketplace production involves the collaboration of many different entities; academia, philanthropy, government and industry.

"Philanthropy plays an especially crucial role at the point where new knowledge benefiting society has been created, but a marketplace solution is not yet feasible." Smith said.  This is the point Smith calls "catalytic philanthropy," where it's needed to develop sufficient data to prepare papers for peer review and seek government support. "Without it, research can be derailed before meaningful development and testing can even occur."

Further along in the process, philanthropy is needed for designing, implementing and testing real world application.

"During this time it is necessary to move research over what I refer to as the 'valley of death' to the point where venture capital becomes realistic," Smith said. "The future of medicine, conquering the major research and healthcare delivery challenges of our time, cannot happen without the innovative thinking of our researchers and, of course, those who support it."

Attendees saw presentations on two areas with enormous potential, where research is already in the process of moving from the lab to the marketplace. Ananth Annapragada, Ph.D., associate professor at SHIS, is developing the next generation of diagnostic and drug delivery tools. Annapragada and his lab team have created nanoparticles that can be used for a broad spectrum of problems.  The first application is a nanoparticle contrast agent, used for CT scans or MRIs, that could revolutionize imaging diagnostics.

Annapragada's contrast agent improves the overall image quality, increases the amount of time it remains in the patient's system, which gives doctors more time to capture images, decreases adverse side effects, and increases equipment options. "In the Texas Medical Center, accessibility isn't really an issue, but in a rural town or even at the front lines of war, it's not as easy to get the care you need," Annapragada said, "Our agent makes it possible to have high-quality images without very large, expensive machines."  

The second application, based on the same nano-carriers, is in something called a "smart" particle, that when inhaled or injected is smart enough to release the treatment needed. Annapragada explained the particles in the context of insulin delivery for diabetics, but they have a number of different potential uses from treatment for asthmatics to those affected by biochemical attacks.

"In diabetics, the particles can sense the glucose level and release insulin within the body as needed. This is significant for several reasons," Annapragada said, "The quality of life is improved through a once-daily dosage and the smart particles' ability to monitor levels eliminates the need for intra-day testing. The quality of health also is improved by keeping glucose levels relatively stable over a 24-hour period, a key factor in avoiding medical complications."

The research of Vittorio Cristini, Ph.D., associate professor at SHIS, is currently focused on creating computer  simulations of tumor growth in cancer patients.

"The end goal of our research is to improve surgical outcomes and to improve the efficacy of chemotherapy and radiation treatment plans," Cristini said. "This will also give researchers a better understanding of how tumors progress."

By defining on an individual basis, the size, margins and growth patterns of the tumor, Cristini and his lab team are able to provide patients with personalized medicine.  His current research is being conducted on breast cancer tumors, but like Annapragada's nanoparticles, can be applied to a number of different cancers and even regenerative medicine.

"We use actual patient biopsies from our UT M. D. Anderson collaborators to build the basis for our interactive models," said Cristini.  

One of the things that makes Cristini's work so innovative is that it actually defines and predicts the growth of each individual patient's tumor, not just one with similar traits.

Three spin-off companies at various stages of maturity have been created by the entrepreneurial faculty: Marval Biosciences, Inc. by Annapragada, which focuses on the nanoparticle contrast agent for cardiovascular imaging;  Cense Biosciences, Inc. also by Annapragada , dedicated to smart particle inhalation and injection therapies;  and InSilico Therapies, Inc. co-founded by Annapragada and Cristini, a spin-off committed to commercializing simulation software for drug discovery and cancer treatment.

"This just goes to show you the power of computational modeling and simulation melded with engineering expertise, and how it can develop into something even bigger," Smith said.