Translational Research Forum at #BIO2010: Learning From the Land of Lincoln

I attended the translational research forum Monday morning at the BIO 2010 convention in Chicago. The morning started with Congressman Dan Lipinski from Illinois, who was a great choice as he is a member of the House Committee for Science and Technology, as well as the House Committee on Small Business. He is sponsoring the NSF Reauthorization Bill, which will increase the NSF budget to $20B by 2015 and include funding for higher risk/reward projects. The bill will also have provisions for research infrastructure and education. This bill is slated to be brought to the House in the Memorial Day work period, and its passage will of course be beneficial to academic researchers, key to translational research efforts.
Congressman Lipinski also discussed the status of SBIR/STTR reauthorization, which is currently in limbo as there are House and Senate bills which must be reconciled. I did not realize that these programs are currently in a temporary extension and thus vulnerable to be no longer available for small businesses. One of the issues plaguing the reauthorization is the disagreement about whether venture capital (VC) funded companies should be eligible. Lipinski was vague as to the future of this bill, but assured us that these business grants are a high priority, especially since they will help to create jobs in this down economy.
The forum continued with a panel themed ‘From Science to Invention’ containing mostly academic panelists from Illinois, with a representative from Pfizer St. Louis (on the Missouri-Illinois border). Ted Mazzone of University of Illinois Chicago explained the organization of their CTSA (Clinical and Translational Science Awards) center, which has sophisticated infrastructure to support collaboration and commercialization across a ‘mini consortium’ that exists within the CTSAs in Illinois. Stephen Kent from the University of Chicago talked about his experience with translational research from early challenges in vaccine research to studies of the decreasing chiralty of drugs and its affects on NCE approvals. David McCormick from the IIT Research Institute talked about the importance of bioinformatics and stratification of patients.
Dean Welsch, Research Fellow at Pfizer, described his work in the Indications Discovery Unit, where drugs are being repurposed to treat new indications. Efforts to streamline internal information around compounds has been key to making these efforts successful. Pfizer is also looking externally, including a pharma portal within the CTSA to exchange materials or information. He also described how they find new partners and technologies, including utilization of resources such as this web-based network of research centers for Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis. Pfizer also creating a model which they hope will also be adopted more universally called Foci of Expertise, in which CTSA experts can be found and connect. In Welsch’s three years using these methodologies, their modestly sized group has moved 5 compounds into the clinic, which is impressive. Welsch also hinted that a ‘creative’ collaboration between Pfizer and Washington University in St. Louis will be announced soon.
The panel discussed the future of translational research as well. Access to biobanking information, software and informatics challenges, and the traversing the ‘valley of death’ appeared to be the common thread among the discussions. The question that kept nagging me revolves around which entity is ultimately responsible for funding translational research, if any. Government initiatives such as CTSA and NIH Roadmap are certainly important, but are they enough to stimulate the level of collaboration needed? I was encouraged by the level of creativity demonstrated by Pfizer, and I’m guessing this has been driven by the need to economize. Hopefully, lessons that are learned will be applicable more generally. Interesting that I had never heard of a CTSA until today–they seem to be more prevalent in the midwest/east coast, but the Scripps Translational Science Institute is a CTSA. How could we apply these lessons in translational research collaboration in Illinois/Missouri to San Diego biotech?