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Research Universities Jumpstart Michigan’s Biotech Industry

The state of Michigan has experienced a dramatic shift in its biotech industry. Pfizer’s closing of three Michigan research facilities in 2007 was a significant setback. But the fact that the state’s universities began to share more responsibilities for biotech research, says Dr. Rick Neubig, presents tremendous potential.

Neubig is a University of Michigan Professor of Pharmacology, Associate Professor of Internal Medicine, and Director of the university’s brand new Center for the Discovery of New Medicines (CDNM). To realize this potential, Neubig and leaders at all of Michigan’s research universities are redefining how they communicate with both each other and the private sector.

“We want to provide each other a broader picture of where things are through better communication and to help provide our researchers with advice on that next step to commercialization,” Neubig says.

The CDNM opened at the end of August 2012. The center serves to unite a number of previously disconnected departments within the university, facilitating both communication and cooperation among the scientists for more effective and efficient discovery and development of drugs. Modest research grants are available, as participating organizations have promised $500,000 a year for the next three years. It will also “push down the pathway for commercialization,” aiding in the navigation of its complex processes, Neubig says.

The center is already seeing positive results, with 8 to 10 projects already on the verge of commercialization.

Michigan State University’s Evangelyn Alocilja is familiar with what it takes to get to that next step of commercialization, as she says she had to “learn the language of communicating” with the private sector. Dr. Alocilja invented a biosensor that can detect pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella quicker than ever before. Michigan startup nanoRETE has licensed the technology.

Dr. Alocilja’s biosensor has cut pathogen screening time to a remarkable fraction. Where previous E. coli screening methods took anywhere from 48 to 72 hours, Dr. Alocilja has cut this waiting period down to a mere 50 to 60 minutes. The technology is also effective in screening for tuberculosis and anthrax.

Dr. Alocilja was working on her project when a fellow researcher said that it was up to her if she was going to get her technology out of the laboratory and into the world.

“We call it the valley of death, that gap between public labs and private labs,” Alocilja says. Dr. Alocilja realized she had to learn how to go from developing technologies in the laboratory to attracting private interest.

“Overcoming that language barrier between faculty and venture capitalists is something that should be taught,” said Alocilja. “I had to learn it, study it: What is the mindset of people in the marketplace? How do I get the venture capitalists to understand me?”

With MSU’s aggressive outreach to venture capitalists and Dr. Alocilja’s eventual mastering of that so-called language barrier, the hand-held biosensor has been picked up and should prove lifesaving.

“Unless the private sector takes over, you’re very limited,” said Alocilja. “There has to be a public-private partnership if you want to impact lives.”

Dr. David Oupicky, Associate Professor of Wayne State University’s Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, is also establishing Wayne State as a biotech hub. Dr. Oupicky’s research group has designed an innovative method for nanocarriers to treat metastatic cancer and inflammatory diseases.

While the first patient-related outcomes aren’t expected for another several years, the research suggests the promise of success. The initial research has been published in the chemistry journal Angewandte Chemi under the title “Dual-function CXCR4 Antagonist Polyplexes to Deliver Gene Therapy and Inhibit Cancer Cell Invasion.” Dr. Oupicky’s nanocarriers have a unique dual functionality.

According to Dr. Oupicky, the research found that “the nanocarriers not only limit metastasis and inflammation, but also deliver additional therapeutic agents with anticancer or anti-inflammatory activity.”

Dr. Oupicky’s nanocarriers and Dr. Alocilja’s biosensor are evidence of the public sector picking up a decade’s worth of slack left by Michigan’s private biotech industry. Our universities may not be receiving the same levels of investment as, for instance, Florida’s, but this also allows for researchers to come up with new ways to innovate.

“We could always use more money,” said Dr. Alocilja. “But sometimes impact isn’t measured by more money. Sometimes impact is improved through strategy.”

Dr. Neubig agrees. “More money is not necessarily the best approach. More coordination among universities would do wonders.”

Dr. Neubig notes that there has always been collaboration between the three universities of the URC, but there are opportunites to take that collaboration to the next level, such as finding ways to share information more easily between the universities, perhaps in a fashion similar to his own CDNM. Neubig affirms that such actions would benefit Michigan’s biotech industry as a whole.

“There is among us a tremendous amount of strength.”

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