The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center has awarded approximately $3.7 million in Cooperative Research Grants to six public-private biomedical research projects in the state, the agency said recently.
The MLSC is betting that the first-ever grants, which will be matched dollar-for-dollar by participating industry partners, will help stimulate the state’s life sciences economy by driving promising biomedical technologies to market and by encouraging further public-private research collaborations.
The grant program is one of several being administered by the MLSC as part of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s $1 billion, 10-year life-sciences initiative announced in June.
Specifically, the Cooperative Research Grant Program seeks to fund collaborations between scientists, academic institutions, and industry that promise “significant commercial potential in the near term and are scientifically meritorious,” MLSC said in a statement.
“The Cooperative Research Grant Program builds on the center’s strategy of using public investments to leverage private sector resources as we pursue our dual mission of job creation, and support for good science that will improve the human condition,” Susan Windham Bannister, MLSC’s president and CEO, said in the statement.
“We have identified worthy scientific research projects with commercial potential that are taking place in various parts of the state,” she added. “These investments will bring solid returns for our local economy and for medical and scientific knowledge throughout the world.”
The MLSC approved the first-ever round of Cooperative Research Grants earlier this month. The center chose six grant recipients from 27 applications. The grant winners are:
- Rudolf Faust/University of Massachusetts-Lowell/Boston Scientific; $199,596 per year for three years. Faust, a professor of chemistry at UMass-Lowell, along with three postdocs and two graduate students, will work with Natick-based Boston Scientific to design, synthesize, and manufacture new biocompatible and functional materials for better performance in several medical devices.
- Judy Lieberman/Immune Disease Institute/Epic Therapeutics; $250,000 per year for three years. Lieberman, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, will work with IDI and Norwood-based Epic to test the effectiveness and toxicity of microparticles with siRNAs in treating viral infections HSV-2 and HPV in female mice.
- David Weitz/Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences/RainDance Technologies; $250,000 per year for three years. Weitz, a professor of physics and applied physics at Harvard, will work with Lexington’s RainDance to develop and demonstrate the use of a new form of fluorescence activated cell sorter used to collect biochemical information about individual cells.
- Andrew Luster/Massachusetts General Hospital/Idera Pharmaceuticals; $63,100 per year for three years Luster, chief of rheumatology, allergy, and immunology at Massachusetts General Hospital, will work with Idera of Cambridge to determine whether the company’s olignonucleotide-based TLR7 and TLR9 antagonist molecules inhibit human immune cell activation.
- Richard Lee and Parth Patwari/Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Biomeasure; $250,000 per year for three years. Lee and Patwari, both of Harvard Medical School, will work with Brigham and Women’s and Milford-based Biomeasure on in vivo pre-clinical tests of a heparin-binding protein, which may enhance cartilage regeneration after traumatic injury and provide therapy for osteoarthritis.
- Michael Czech and Gary Ostroff/UMass Medical School/RXi Pharmaceuticals; $249,593 per year for three years. Czech and Ostroff will work with RXi Pharmaceuticals of Worcester on research revealing how RNAi may be harnessed as an orally available medicine. The collaboration will seek to advance these findings towards commercially viable RNAi therapeutics.
All applicants were eligible for up to $250,000 per year for up to three years. It was up to each individual public-private partnership to negotiate a specific amount needed to support a particular project and allow the industry partner to provide a one-to-one match.
According to one of the recipients, the grants are a no-brainer in that they provide support for high-risk, high-reward research collaborations that might have otherwise gone unrealized.
“The grant is helping us do work which we otherwise couldn’t do,” MGH’s Luster told BTW this week.
“The grant is helping us do work which we otherwise couldn’t do.”
Luster and MGH colleagues Terry Means and Robert Friday, in collaboration with Idera, will investigate the company’s oligonucleotide toll-like receptor antagonists as possible treatments for autoimmune disorders.
According to Luster, TLRs typically recognize molecular patterns associated with pathogens. However, Luster and colleagues have been working with certain TLRs that also interact with nucleic acids, and may be activated by endogenous nucleic acids in immune cells.
“There is a concept that these autoantibody complexes can autoactivate immune cells,” Luster said. “It was of interest to us to see whether we could work with [TLR] antagonists to show whether they could block the activation of immune complexes in lupus patients.”
However, MGH “doesn’t have the compounds or the resources to do this,” so itm was only natural to pair with Idera, which is developing proprietary TLR agonists and antagonists for treating myriad diseases, Luster said.
Luster and Idera had already initiated a formal relationship this summer when the company brought Luster and several other autoimmune experts together to form the company’s first autoimmune disease scientific advisory board.
“We brought together these key thought leaders in the autoimmune area,” Sudhir Agrawal, CEO and CSO of Idera, told BTW this week. “Some of the data that Andy got to see got him very excited, and we looked at how we could support his work. He initiated the process, and we supported in the writing of application.”
Luster said that although his SAB appointment did not necessarily precipitate a sponsored research partnership with Idera, “being part of their SAB and having a relationship with them facilitated my ability to communicate quickly with the head of the company and tell them my idea.”
As part of the arrangement, Luster and colleagues will conduct their studies using Idera’s proprietary compounds, for which they needed to negotiate a materials transfer agreement.
In addition, the MLSC grants provide no stipulations for how intellectual property rights are to be handled; therefore, it is up to each industry-academic team to pre-negotiate those rights should a patentable invention be made during the course of the partnership.
“We spent a lot of time beforehand to make sure the IP was dealt with beforehand. The agreement was very specific, and the company and MGH were very comfortable,” Luster said. “As always, that’s a big hurdle to get over with a company, but again, having a good working relationship with the company helps.”
Agrawal told BTW that Idera has negotiated exclusive rights to any application that stems from its TLR compounds, “otherwise it would compromise our proprietary position on the drug candidates.”
As an example of how the grants could help spur economic development in the region, Luster said that if initial results are promising, “it could spur us to seek additional funding for mechanism-related research” which could “potentially expand to them doing clinical trials with us.”
In addition, if initial results are promising, Idera might be receptive to providing additional funding for the ongoing research. “This is enough now to support a few young scientists at the postdoc level,” Agrawal said. “As this program proceeds, we’ll keep this open.”