The Life Sciences Discovery Fund, a Washington state agency created in 2005 to promote life-sciences competitiveness and foster economic growth in the state, said last week that it has awarded approximately $5 million to six health research projects being conducted at academic institutions in the state.
The grants are the third set of awards made through the fund, which is authorized to distribute up to $350 million over 10 years, with most of the money coming from Washington’s approximately $495 million state tobacco-settlement revenue.
Although the grants do not have a technology-commercialization stipulation attached to them, they are intended to “invest” in more applied research projects with an end goal of providing an economic return to the state of Washington in the form of biotechnology goods, services, companies, and jobs, an LSDF official said this week.
“We use the word ‘investment’ … mainly for our principal investigators to understand that the state really views these research grants as investments in the future,” John DesRosier, director of programs for the LSDF, told BTW this week. “Consequently, this grant will look a little different than what you might get from the federal government, for instance.”
For instance, DesRosier said that the grants will have certain milestones and timelines that have to be met, and that the LSDF board of directors will tend to be very hands-on in terms of following the progress of awardees’ research.
“Knowledge production, per se, is not one of our goals,” DesRosier said. “Everything that we fund, even if it is on the earlier side, is thinking about what the endpoint is. Consequently, our board doesn’t really think of whether this is basic or applied research. They’re really thinking about, ‘What is the risk of the outcome in this?’”
Furthermore, the LSDF is precluded by the state constitution from making direct investments in companies. However, the fund is encouraging its grant recipients to collaborate with local startup and established companies; and, in some cases, grant money might be “sub-contracted” from the non-profit recipient to a commercial entity, officials said.
So far, the strategy seems to be achieving its goal of fostering public-private collaborations, and providing a boost to university start-up companies. Of the six most recent awardees (see below), four are associated with startup companies.
An LSDF spokesperson stressed that none of the grant money will directly fund activities at those companies, but will rather pay for key proof-of-concept work in the laboratories of faculty founders or scientific advisors – work that the associated startup company would have an obvious inside track to take advantage of through a licensing deal.
For instance, one principal investigator, Pierre Mourad of the University of Washington, has co-founded several companies. His most recent, PhysioSonics, has developed a few marketed products including an ultrasound-based transcranial Doppler neuromonitor that provides neurologists with a non-invasive tool to observe intracranial circulation.
Mourad will use his $225,000 LSDF grant primarily to support his laboratory at UW, which is developing a means to non-invasively localize painful tissues using intense-focused ultrasound to generate increased sensations deep within tissues.
“With this proof-of-concept there are probably four or five broad avenues of application for this technology,” Mourad told BTW. “This is the funnel point: Let’s prove that we can stimulate tissue at depth, and then see what kind of device we can develop.” Mourad added that the LSDF funding can also be accurately described as “gap funding” for applied research that could have a more immediate impact than basic research.
“This grant lets us become the scientist-entrepreneurs that we want to be, and start to bring things toward commercialization.”
“What floats my boat is being able to do work that will allow me to impact patients’ lives in my lifetime,” Mourad said. “I deeply admire purely basic research. I do it, and have done it, but I have developed MD envy.”
The award to Mourad’s research group was the smallest of the six Discovery Fund awards primarily because he has much less proof-of-concept to achieve; the underlying ultrasound technology has already been demonstrated to work in different applications such as the TCD neuromonitor. In fact, last month, PhysioSonics closed a Series A financing round of more than $4 million, led by Johnson & Johnson Development Corporation, and will use the money to advance the neuromonitor technology.
Meantime, another LSDF principal investigator, Cecilia Giachelli of the University of Washington, will use her $1.5 million LSDF grant to investigate biologically engineering immune cells to treat ectopic calcification, or the inappropriate mineralization of soft tissues.
Part of her plan is to organize a multi-disciplinary team of researchers at UW to tackle the disease at the earliest stages of commercial development. However, the results could have a commercial impact if recent UW spinout firm Calcionics, which Giachelli helped found, is able to add patents generated by the research to its IP portfolio.
Calcionics is attempting to develop therapeutics for ectopic calcification and has licensed IP from UW that describes a protein Giachelli helped discover that has been shown to block calcification.
“There is quite a bit of knowledge about the problem now, as we and others have identified some of the mechanisms of deposit, but the big place where we needed funding to take that next leap was to bring together a team that could sit down and think about this problem,” Giachelli said.”
“We work in areas that are clinically relevant, and in our hearts we want to be able to translate what we’re doing,” she added. “We want to be able to improve lives, health, and contribute to society. And most of us have been funded by other sources. This grant lets us become the scientist-entrepreneurs that we want to be, and start to bring things toward commercialization.”
Among LSDF’s two previous rounds of grants was one totaling about $4.3 million, made earlier this year to six investigators at five different institutions. Like the most recent awards, these grants were classified as “project” grants, and as such focused on specific single research projects.
Earlier this year the fund also awarded around $21.8 million to five projects at four different institutions under the “program” grants mechanism, which awards greater amounts of cash to larger, multi-disciplinary research programs with broader concepts and goals.
According to DesRosier, it’s too early to say whether the LSDF program has helped commercialize a product, launch a service, or create jobs, though he said he hopes he will be able to talk about such specific examples in the coming months.
The fund may also gain an even more commercial slant as this week the board will meet to discuss whether additional funding mechanisms with a more acute focus on technology transfer should be added to the LSDF program, DesRosier said.
“My background is really suited to commercialization,” said DesRosier, who previously was employed for several years by the UW tech-transfer office. “As much as we can do in that arena, I think it is much easier to demonstrate to the public here exactly what kind of return they are getting.”
The Washington state Life Sciences Discovery Fund last week announced that it has awarded approximately $5 million to six projects at a pair of state academic institutions. The projects are intended to encourage public-private collaboration and provide proof-of-concept to speed the development of life sciences innovations at the institutions.
The most recent award recipients, amounts, and projects are:
Clifford Berkman, Washington State University; awarded $680,000 to develop chemoaffinity agents for imaging prostate cancer. The researchers will specifically image prostate tumors in animal models using radioactively labeled inhibitors of prostate-specific membrane antigen, a marker of prostate cancer. Their objective is to build a foundation for the development and commercialization of a new diagnostic tool for prostate cancer based on single-photon emission-computerized tomography.
Diane Cook, Washington State University; awarded $791,000 to create a "smart environment" that enables older adults or individuals experiencing cognitive or physical limitations to function independently and remain in their own home setting. A "smart environment" is one that is equipped with low-cost sensors that yield alerts and reminders for the elderly and disabled to ensure they are adequately caring for themselves.
Eberhard Fetz, University of Washington; awarded $1.07 million to develop implantable electrical stimulators to increase functional recovery in damaged areas of the brain. The investigators will use implantable electric stimulators to more effectively and continuously stimulate the brain's outer region or cortex, and will develop and test minimally invasive techniques meant to enhance the clinical application of the implantable electric stimulators. Parallel studies will be conducted in animal models and human subjects using a neurochip to develop more effective delivery of therapeutic brain stimulation.
Cecilia Giachelli, University of Washington; awarded $1.5 million to develop technologies for local human cell therapies that can inhibit and regress ectopic calcification, or calcification of soft tissues. The research team will use gene and protein delivery techniques to promote anti-calcification molecule release at sites of ectopic calcification. This project seeks to prolong the life of bioprosthetic devices like heart valves that are prone to early calcification and failure, and to provide a therapy to deter secondary calcification that can develop in certain conditions such as injury and burns.
Pierre Mourad, University of Washington; awarded $225,000 to demonstrate the use of intense-focused ultrasound in identifying the source of deep pain. The method uses intense-focused ultrasound to generate increased sensations deep within tissues that help to localize the source of pain. Using a transcutaneous acoustic palpation device, the researchers will test pain localization in controlled experiments.
Patrick Stayton, University of Washington; awarded $972,000 to develop a rapid, low-cost, self-powered, easy-to-use device to detect infectious agents in blood. These disposable devices will combine "smart" nanomaterial-based reagents with non-instrumented lab card formats. The research team's objective is to develop a prototype that can detect different infectious agents from a finger-stick of whole blood using a disposable plastic lab card.