Moving Discoveries to Patients

Last week we spun out the sixth company this year from the School of Medicine faculty. It features a nifty little device that samples the lower esophagus to check for the changes of Barrett’s esophagus. This sampling is done without endoscopy or sedation – you just swallow a plastic wafer-like device and pull it out, containing a good sample of the cells from the lower esophagus. Since esophageal cancer incidence has skyrocketed over the last decade, it is crucial to make early diagnosis of its potential precursor, Barrett’s esophagus, and to intervene. Sandy Markowitz and Amitabh Chak designed the device and showed that its specificity and sensitivity potentially make it a remarkably useful diagnostic tool.

We may yet spin out one more company before the academic year is over. The total is the most for us over the last fifteen years – at least. This result is very gratifying because about six years ago we set out to see that more of our great discoveries make it to patients. We engaged translational officers from industry to scout out the most promising discoveries and assembled a team of alumni and friends from industry to advise us on which technologies could be developed – and how best to do so. We obtained support from generous donors to invest in the development of these technologies and then worked to identify investors who would take the technologies the next step into the for-profit world. In only a few years the School has spun out an impressive group of companies and boasts an enviable pipeline of technologies that range from traditional drugs to inventive devices to probiotics for both adults and kids.

It is important, I think, to develop a culture that values the potential for moving technologies to patients. As part of that effort we give graduate students the opportunity to rotate in industry and are developing an entrepreneurship pathway in the medical school for our MD students. There is now an entrepreneur mentoring program for postdocs and early-career faculty members who want to learn about factors for commercialization. Soon it will be in our DNA to consider how our discoveries could lead to better diagnosis and treatment of patients.

It will be most satisfying when the development opportunities made available to our faculty enable them to directly benefit patients.