URMC Announces Research Partnership with Johnson & Johnson

July 11, 2005

A unique fund to nurture research and technologies that have the potential to lead to new health care products is being established at the University of Rochester Medical Center through a partnership with Johnson & Johnson.  The Medical Center today announced that a “Discovery Concept Fund” is being created to target promising early-stage research generally conducted by junior scientists who have ideas but often do not have ready access to funding.

“World class biomedical research institutions, such as the University of Rochester Medical Center, are engines of innovation,” said Ted Torphy, corporate vice president for science and technology at Johnson & Johnson. “The objective of this partnership is to both support this process of discovery and accelerate the translation of research into products for patients.  We believe long-term collaborative partnerships between the academic and the private sector will be increasingly important in advancing breakthroughs in the diagnosis and treatment of serious disease. We share the same fundamental goal of bringing better treatment to patients.”

This partnership comes at a time when the University of Rochester Medical Center and other biomedical research institutions are facing significant funding challenges.  While the Medical Center has doubled its total research funding over the last seven years to $210 million, $142 million of which came from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the rate of growth has decelerated in recent years due to the leveling off of the NIH budget.

“The Medical Center has made an enormous investment in recent years to expand our research capabilities,” said David Guzick, M.D., Ph.D, dean of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. “As we look to the future, we are compelled to seek out private sources of revenue which will enable us to grow our biomedical research enterprises.  This partnership will also help us better utilize the talents of our faculty and our research infrastructure to translate innovative discoveries into useful technologies and treatments that can be used by patients around the world.” 

An example of the potential of this partnership was on display today as it was separately announced that the Medical Center and Johnson & Johnson were moving forward on a $1.6 million joint research project.  This project will utilize a process developed by Howard Federoff, M.D., Ph.D, senior associated dean for basic science research at the Medical Center, which can target activity in neurons that prevent the repair of the central nervous system following spinal cord injury or trauma to the brain.  This application of this process also has the potential to lead to the development of new classes of drugs.

Biomedical research at the University of Rochester Medical Center also represents a critical factor in Rochester’s economic development. This research not only has a direct impact, in terms of employment and spending, but the innovation at the Medical Center fuels the region’s emerging biotechnology sector. Growth in research not only generates more research funds for the Medical Center in the form of royalty revenue from patented discoveries, but the technology also migrates to start-up companies, most of which are based in Rochester.

Discovery Concept Fund

The Discovery Concept Fund will be jointly administered by Johnson & Johnson and the University of Rochester Medical Center and will be funded on a renewable basis by Johnson & Johnson.

“Johnson & Johnson is committed to supporting biomedical institutions, as demonstrated by the $50 million in grants we have awarded researchers in the last twenty years,” said Torphy. “The University of Rochester Medical Center is one of a few select partners for the Discovery Concept Fund.  Based on the quality of their science and an environment for collaboration and entrepreneurship, the only limit in our relationship that I can see will be the amount of innovation that its scientists can produce.”

The fund will solicit proposals from Medical Center scientists with the objective of nurturing early-stage research and technologies that have the potential to impact health care.  In doing so, it will target researchers, particularly junior scientists, who often have difficulty competing with their more established colleagues for research grants. Johnson & Johnson has stated that it will not limit the number of meritorious applications it will fund.

“This agreement is truly mutually beneficial,” said Guzick. “A major problem faced by industry is access to new concepts or novel approaches that lay the foundation for new medical breakthroughs. On the flip side, scientists who have a concept or idea that could provide a solution to a specific problem often lack funding to evaluate and advance their research.”

The fund will be governed by a committee consisting of equal members from both the Medical Center and Johnson & Johnson. The committee will oversee the administration of the fund including the solicitation, evaluation and funding of research proposals. Awards will consist of what is termed “no rights” grants. In other words, Johnson & Johnson will have no special rights to any discoveries or patents that arise from research supported by the agreement. All intellectual property rights to the discoveries will be retained by the Medical Center and its inventors. 

The One that Almost Got Away

It is a long and difficult path from the “eureka” moment in the mind of a scientist to the successful application of that idea in the laboratory. This process is all the more difficult for the junior researcher who must compete with his more senior and accomplished colleagues for limited research funds.

When Roman J. Giger, PhD, arrived at the University of Rochester Medical Center in 2001, he made a decision fraught with risk: He decided to change his field of study. Giger, an assistant professor in Neurology in the Center for Aging and Developmental Biology and the Department of Biomedical Genetics, did his doctoral work in nervous system development, the biological process by which the body develops its central nervous system. Rather than continuing his work in this field at Rochester, Giger instead wanted to study regeneration and how the body rebuilds – or, more importantly, fails to rebuild – nerves following a trauma such as spinal cord injury.

But there was a problem. Despite a novel approach and depth of understanding of the subject, Giger was a junior researcher with no track record, no publications in his name in the field, and was proposing a line of research that had never been attempted. Consequently, Giger’s first application for an NIH grant was turned down.

 “It is sort of a chicken and the egg situation,” said Giger. “NIH requires that you have data or ‘proof of concept’ in order to receive funds. But without funds, it is extremely difficult to assemble the data necessary to prove your idea has merit.”

It all may have ended there, but with his department’s support Giger was able to land a small grant from the Ellison Medical Foundation. The critical infusion of money enabled him to staff and equip his laboratory and pursue his research. Soon thereafter, Giger was able to publish his groundbreaking work, which suggests a new path for researchers to consider as they try to develop ways to treat patients with spinal cord injuries. Subsequently, Giger has been able to land not only a grant from NIH, but also the New York State Spinal Cord Injury Trust Fund and the Christopher Reeve Foundation.  Giger is also one of the investigators in the $1.6 million joint research project with Johnson & Johnson that was announced today.

“Without someone out there willing to take a chance on a junior researcher with a new idea, I might have abandoned the whole enterprise,” says Giger. “That first grant enabled me to move forward with research that I believe will contribute to new treatments for the hundreds of thousands of Americans who suffer from spinal cord injuries.”

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Mark Michaud
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