New drug development process
Daria Mochly-Rosen is the engine behind the SPARK program, which helps Stanford researchers navigate the process of turning their lab findings into potential drug therapies.
Daria Mochly-Rosen, PhD, was about as hardcore a basic science researcher as you can be. For more than 20 years, she lived and breathed basic research, reveling in the microscopic world where molecules formed, changed shape and danced with one another. The professor of chemical and systems biology was even known to sketch cartoons of them wearing fanciful hats.
That was until 13 years ago when she made a discovery she thought could save people’s lives. Her research on a group of enzymes offered clues to designing better heart disease drugs, and she wanted to take her discoveries to the next level.
When Stanford’s Office of Technology Licensing had no success getting the idea picked up by industry, she decided to take it into her own hands. “I thought, obviously the problem is with the OTL. I’ll pitch it myself, ” said Mochly-Rosen, now the School of Medicine's senior associate dean for research. She soon learned how wrong she had been.
One fruit of her crash course in turning biomedical discoveries into medical tools is SPARK, Stanford’s bioscience incubator, founded five years ago. And what started as a program to put Stanford researchers’ discoveries to work for society has grown as an educational venture as well. From the beginning, the program’s weekly seminars were open to graduate students. But since 2009, students in the med school’s drug discovery class became active participants, presenting development plans to the program’s experts and getting their feedback.
SPARK provides Stanford students and researchers expertise in everything from drug formulation and biochemical assays, to trial design and consent forms, to intellectual property law and regulatory agency requirements. At their weekly seminars, held Wednesday evenings, SPARK participants get advice from angel investors such as Sand Hill Angels’ Ted McCluskey, MD, PhD; clinical trial hands such as Stanford’s Bill Robinson, MD; and biotech scientists such as Telik’s VP for R&D Steve Schow, PhD, and industry veteran Lyn Frumkin, MD, PhD, who trained at Stanford and flies down from Seattle to participate.
Such lessons on how to demonstrate the clinical utility of the initial scientific findings and how to interest companies in using these discoveries are rarely taught at medical schools. But that’s starting to change. In addition to SPARK, Stanford has a few other programs with similar goals, such as Biodesign, for medical devices, and the NIH-supported C-IDEA, which supports Stanford medical innovations addressing health problems in the developing world. Like SPARK, both programs also offer some seed funding.
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