How might lab-generated antibodies end up helping soldiers in Iraq? How might cancer patients benefit from biodegradable polymers? These questions are the lifeblood of Yale’s Office of Cooperative Research.
Through the OCR’s patenting and licensing process, the University assumes control over faculty inventions — a policy which, in certain cases, has created conflict over the ownership of discoveries made at Yale. But scientists and professors said the OCR is an efficient vehicle for bringing their creations to the public, because it links them with investors and business leaders who develop the commercial aspects of the products. Three professors’ inventions have recently started down this path to the marketplace.
Last week, venture capitalists invested $15 million in a company founded a year ago by Manohar Panjabi, an orthopedics and rehabilitation professor at the School of Medicine, to develop spine stabilization implants for low back pain patients.
Panjabi said he began research on the spine about 30 years ago, long before he and CEO Thomas Wood founded Applied Spine Technologies, Inc. The startup is currently housed in the newly renovated facilities at 300 George St.
“I didn’t originally have the intention to develop the device for low back pain patients, but rather to help fix experimental spinal fractures,” Panjabi said. “Inventions come along the way as solutions to problems.”
After developing the device, Panjabi filed a patent disclosure with the OCR — a requirement for all University inventors. The OCR’s process was slower than he would have liked, he said, but eventually helped connect him with Wood. Together, they developed a portfolio outlining possible clinical uses for the implant.
About five months later, Wood secured $4 million from Oxford Bioscience Partners and BioVenture Investors to start the company. Last week’s additional $15 million was provided by venture capital firms InterWest Partners and De Novo Ventures, based in Menlo Park, Calif.
Panjabi said one current solution for low back pain patients is surgical fusion of the two vertebrae surrounding the painful disc, which can inhibit a patient’s motion as a side effect. New devices such as artificial discs retain spinal motion, but they require serious surgery, unlike his less invasive M-brace system, Panjabi said.
The technology is exclusively licensed to the company, he said, which will focus on clinical trials over the next year.
Another innovation developed by a Yale professor may soon be used to both protect U.S. soldiers in the Middle East and develop a canine vaccine.
Two companies have recently told the OCR they are interested in commercializing specific monoclonal antibodies developed by epidemiology and public health professor Diane McMahon-Pratt.
The first company, VecTOR Test Systems Inc., intends to use the antibodies to design a test for parasitic leishmaniasis pathogens in vectoring sand flies. The U.S. Department of Defense has granted funding for the research, which could be useful for soldiers stationed at desert posts in the Middle East where sand flies have infected many with leishmaniasis. The disease can cause sores, fever and even death.
“The problem is that the Army needs a good diagnostic test for [the pathogen] leishmania, and right now they just don’t have one,” McMahon-Pratt said.
The pharmaceutical company Wyeth has also contacted the OCR, as it is interested in using McMahon-Pratt’s antibodies to develop a dog vaccine for its Fort Dodge Animal Health division.
McMahon-Pratt said her situation is different from that of other inventors at the University, because she developed the antibodies while researching at Harvard.
Katherine Koh, an OCR senior licensing associate, said Yale intends to work out a revenue agreement with its counterpart in Cambridge.
“Either we can take the lead in dealing with the companies and set up an inter-institutional agreement with Harvard, or Harvard can take the lead,” she said. “In this situation, our preference is to take the lead, since there are two companies already interested in developing these antibodies.”
Biomedical engineering chairman Mark Saltzman recently transformed his laboratory work into a start-up company. He co-founded Carigent to commercially develop biodegradable micro and nanoparticles that can carry drugs to specifically targeted cells.
Saltzman said he has been doing research related to the particles since the 1980s and, like Panjabi, also did not originally expect his innovations to spawn a company.
“The normal process for a scientist who has made a discovery is usually to just write and publish a paper,” he said. “Sometimes you have a sense for when a discovery is different and more important than normal, but your sense isn’t perfect, which is why the [OCR] is so helpful.”
He said he felt confident in the OCR after filing the invention disclosure for evaluation.
Yale’s patenting and licensing system is effective, Saltzman said, because it gives business professionals the responsibility of judging the potential commercial value of a product, while allowing scientists to be part of the development team.
Saltzman said the particles his lab engineered could help treat many diseases including cancer, because they can be coated with a dense and long-lasting layer of targeting ligands that allow for cell-specific and time-controlled medication delivery. He said the current problem with many cancer drugs is that they damage surrounding healthy cells as well as targeted cancer cells.
Other famous inventions the OCR has licensed in the past include compounds for treating the parasitic Chagas disease, and the protein Nogo, which can be used to help nerves regenerate and might lead to treatments for spinal cord injury, stroke and multiple sclerosis.
The OCR also deals with non-science inventions, including the commercial development of French language multimedia teaching devices and a Swahili dictionary.
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