OHSU Awards First Bioscience Innovation Funds

03/03/05    Portland, Ore.

New fund helps OHSU researchers bridge the "valley of death" funding gap

Oregon Health & Science University has made its first round of monetary awards from a fund founded in 2003 to help university investigators translate promising early-stage discoveries into marketable technologies. Five investigators shared a total of more than $400,000 from the OHSU Bioscience Innovation Fund. The goal of the fund is to help scientists overcome the financing gap between discovery and initial commercial seed funding.

 "This is a great new program that enables OHSU to invest some of its resources in projects which might have a significant commercial impact, thereby increasing the value of the technology. This will allow us to obtain better terms at the time of licensing or start-up formation," said Arundeep Pradhan, director of OHSU Technology and Research Collaborations (TRC).

The awards bridge the so-called "valley of death" - a gap between federal research dollars and the early funds traditionally invested by venture capitalists interested in commercializing new products. Many promising discoveries flounder at this stage because they are too immature to interest industry yet no longer eligible for federal funding. The money awarded from the Bioscience Innovation Fund helps move intellectual property and potentially patentable ideas to the "proof of concept" stage, at which point private funding is more likely.

 "It would be impossible to move the translational research forward as quickly in today's environment without this type of funding," said Martin Kelly, Ph.D., professor of physiology and pharmacology in the OHSU School of Medicine. Kelly and co-investigator Oline K. Ronnekleiv, Ph.D., received nearly $100,000 from the fund.

The award will help Kelly and Ronnekleiv further evaluate the efficacy of a synthetic estrogen compound that has the potential to help menopausal women who are uncertain about hormone replacement therapy in light of recent negative findings of the Women's Health Initiative.

In collaboration with medicinal chemist Thomas Scanlan, Ph.D., professor of pharmaceutical chemistry, and cellular and molecular pharmacology, University of California-San Francisco, the laboratories of Kelly and Ronnekleiv are working to demonstrate in animal models that a synthetic compound called STX controls the undesirable effects of menopause symptoms, such as hot flashes and weight gain.

In women it is anticipated that STX may also reduce additional symptoms such as mood swings and night sweats without the peripheral risk of breast or uterine cancer associated with HRT. STX behaves differently than natural estrogen by exclusively targeting estrogen membrane receptors in brain neurons involved with the regulation of autonomic functions, not reproductive or other tissues.

 "Whether or not to take estrogen is a serious dilemma for millions of women," said Ronnekleiv, a professor of physiology and pharmacology in the OHSU School of Medicine. There are roughly 42 million women in the United States aged 50 and older whose menopausal symptoms could potentially be relieved by STX.
 
The fund is an outgrowth of the state's investment in the Oregon Opportunity through which OHSU is fostering the process of technology transfer and startup company development to catalyze growth of a local biotechnology industry. OHSU Foundation is contributing $250,000 per year for five years.  An external advisory board independently evaluates and decides on specific awards. Projects are presented to the board through TRC. Through TRC, OHSU transfers discoveries resulting from its clinical, educational and research activities to companies for commercial development and, when appropriate, creates new ventures.

 In addition to Kelly and Ronnekleiv, the funded investigators in this first round and their projects include:

- Tomasz Beer, M.D., to further research a promising target for prostate cancer therapy. Beer is an associate professor of medicine (hematology and medical oncology), OHSU School of Medicine; and director, Prostate Cancer Program, OHSU Cancer Institute.

- William Fleming, M.D., Ph.D., to refine technology to protect bone marrow stem cells from lethal radiation exposure. Fleming is an associate professor of medicine (hematology and medical oncology), and cell and developmental biology, and assistant professor of molecular microbiology and immunology in the OHSU School of Medicine; and a member of the OHSU Cancer Institute.

- Stephen R. Hanson, Ph.D., to further research the benefits of lowering platelet counts in the prevention of thrombosis. Hanson is head of biomedical engineering at the OHSU OGI School of Science & Engineering.

- Nathan R. Selden, M.D., Ph.D., to test a novel device for the treatment of hydrocephalus, a condition more commonly known as "water on the brain." Selden is head of pediatric neurosurgery, OHSU Doernbecher Children's Hospital; and assistant professor of neurological surgery, behavioral neuroscience and pediatrics, OHSU School of Medicine.

OHSU scientists have disclosed more than 600 inventions, resulting in nearly $10 million in licensing revenues. This revenue is used to advance OHSU's teaching and research activities.