April 7, 2010

Beyond the Drawing Board

How Tufts helps its inventors make it in the marketplace

By Marjorie Howard

Somewhere in a lab on one of Tufts’ campuses a researcher has an idea: perhaps a new way to save energy or a method to detect a disease earlier. But the road from that initial inspiration to a real product can be difficult to navigate.

The Office for Technology Licensing and Industry Collaboration recognizes that industry “plays a vital role in moving discoveries from the lab to the bedside and into the clinic,” says Adam Wolfberg. Photo: iStock

That’s where the university’s Boston-based Office for Technology Licensing and Industry Collaboration comes in. Staff work closely with faculty inventors on everything from patent applications and licensing agreements to the nuts and bolts of establishing start-ups and finding commercial partners. The goal is to bring inventions developed at Tufts to the public and to ensure that the university receives fair compensation for those discoveries.

The office, founded in 1998, is always juggling numerous projects, says director Nina Green, and it must evaluate the science behind the proposals and deal with the legal and business intricacies. Last year, it brought in $9.6 million, largely from a company called Illumina, which is based on an invention developed by David Walt, the Robinson Professor of Chemistry in the School of Arts and Sciences. He devised a miniature lab platform that allows researchers to conduct drug screening and other repetitive experiments quickly and cheaply.

By policy, 40 percent of the royalties for any invention the office handles go to the inventor, with the rest evenly divvied up between the inventor’s department, the school and the university. Those funds are applied to further research. Because of the often-lengthy interval between idea and product, however, it can be a decade or longer before the university realizes income from early-stage inventions.

Take the case of a new antibiotic that Stuart Levy, a professor of molecular biology and microbiology at the School of Medicine, developed to combat bacteria that have become resistant to the old standby antibiotics. Although Levy co-founded a company called Paratek Pharmaceuticals to commercialize his key finding way back in 1996, he’s still waiting for an actual product to come out. The drug, a promising derivative of tetracycline, was only recently approved for testing in humans, its final regulatory hurdle.

Likewise, Serica Technologies, founded by Gregory Altman, A97, E02, in 1998, has yet to put its wares on the market. Serica’s initial goal—to find a way for the body to regenerate the anterior cruciate ligament—grew out of an idea that Altman came up with while a student in a biomedical engineering course taught by David Kaplan, the Stern Family Professor of Engineering and chair of the department. Kaplan contributed to Altman’s research on the idea as well. When Serica was acquired late last year by Allergan, a health-care firm that develops pharmaceuticals and medical devices, a new company, Alacer Biomedical, was formed to develop Serica’s orthopedic research.

Targeting Entrepreneurs

Instead of attempting to license inventions to large companies, which are not receptive to new ideas in these tough economic times, Green’s office has turned its attention to entrepreneurs who might be interested in founding start-up companies. For example, it helped establish the start-up Ekteino, which builds on the research Kaplan and his team have been doing on silk protein, a natural material that is stable, biocompatible and completely biodegradable in the body. Ekteino (the word comes from the Greek meaning “to stretch out”) is developing silk-based products that could deliver drugs to the body more efficiently.

Martin Son, an associate director in the technology office, sees a bright future for the silk-protein technology. “When you pop a pill now it releases all the medicine at once,” he says. Or you could take a pill that dissolves slowly, releasing the medicine over a 24-hour period. But Ekteino’s products would allow for release over much longer periods.

“You might have a silk patch you stick on your skin or a tiny insert or implant that remains inside you over months that slowly and steadily releases the drug,” Son explains. People with diabetes, say, might receive insulin on a regular basis through implanted silk-based devices. That would certainly beat the current alternative: several insulin injections a day. “You can create silk in so many different formats, and each can be used to impregnate the drug of interest into the silk,” Son says.

Another idea developed at Tufts is for next-generation rechargeable, thin-film batteries. “All the batteries we’re accustomed to, in our laptops, cell phones, etc., are typically lithium ion-based, bulk-chemistry batteries,” says Son. “This is a new battery that has the potential to be superior to what exists today in terms of its energy density and the number of times you can charge it. The useable lifetime of the battery is significantly improved.”

That technology was developed by Ronald Goldner, who retired from the School of Engineering in 2005 after 40 years at Tufts. An entrepreneur has taken an option to license Goldner’s invention and, in partnership with a venture capital firm, will do prototyping research on it for six months before deciding whether to proceed.

Finally, Green’s office has had a hand in a start-up company called MindChild Medical Inc., whose objective is to make a non-invasive device for monitoring fetal heart rate. Adam Wolfberg, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the School of Medicine, is collaborating with an MIT researcher and a North Andover-based medical company to develop the device. Tufts Medical Center, where Wolfberg is based, entered into a licensing agreement with the company last year.

The invention, a belt embedded with electrodes, is placed around a pregnant woman’s abdomen. The signals it picks up yield a fetal electrocardiogram (ECG) of exceptional quality. The fetal heartbeat is not obscured by the maternal heartbeat, as often happens with other non-invasive procedures. In fact, MindChild’s technology is so good at distinguishing between maternal and fetal signals that the accuracy of ECGs from it is on par with those from standard invasive technology. Medical personnel are able to take full advantage of advances in ECG analysis, identifying patterns that suggest infection or pathological conditions.

The Office for Technology Licensing and Industry Collaboration continues to encourage Tufts inventors and has held seminars on medical devices and intellectual property to explain how ideas are transformed into products. While that transformation can take years, the results are well worth the wait, Green says.

And indeed, even those researchers who are still waiting appreciate what the office is doing. The people there “are smart and creative and visionary,” says Wolfberg. “They recognize that industry plays a vital role in moving discoveries from the lab to the bedside and into the clinic, and they do an outstanding job enabling investigators at Tufts to contribute to this process.”

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.

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