The Academic Insider – Stories from flirting with the ‘Dark Side’




September 26, 2018

Dark side (noun): the missing link between academic research and achieving impact

‘I think academic researchers are mindful of the fact that they need to translate their discoveries. But how to actually go about doing that remains somewhat of a black box,’ says Dr Natalie Borg. This sentiment is shared by many biomedical researchers and reflects the knowledge and experience gap that exists between a basic discovery and translation of research into something that has real impact.

In the academic environment, because of the lack of expertise and funding, this gap is known as “the valley of death.” Yet this valley is routinely traversed within industry. It is therefore essential to demystify this process, and provide the resources and know-how that exists within industry to bridge this gap if we are to realise the full potential of academic scientific discoveries.

The challenge, however, facing the translation of academic science to achieve impact for human health is demonstrated by the increasing cost of drug development over recent years. According to the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development, during the 1990s, the development of a new drug took an average of 8 years with costs up to $USD802 million. Today, that figure stands at 15 years and $USD2.6 billion, in spite of dramatic advancements in knowledge and technology. This quantifiable inflation in cost and time has driven a greater outward research focus of industry as it seeks to harness academic advances. BioCurate was specifically created to foster a stronger understanding and collaboration between academia and industry – to bridge the academic valley of death.

Professor Dale Godfrey and Dr Natalie Borg, two researchers who have maintained long-running conversations about their respective projects with the BioCurate team, understand this problem all too well. Professor Dale Godfrey is currently an NHMRC SPRF in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Melbourne and Immunology Theme Leader at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity; and Dr Natalie Borg is an ARC Future Fellow and lab head based in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Monash University. While each are at different stages of their career and commercialisation journeys, both have come to realise they no longer need to view their research and achieving its commercial potential as separate endeavours.

With the uncertain path to commercialisation and the publish or perish mentality firmly entrenched in academia, “research-translation” can simply become an empty cliché. Both Dale and Natalie have had indirect interactions with the world of commercialisation throughout their academic careers. Dale completed his postdoctoral research in the United States, in an academic environment that was funded by industry. He recalls, ‘there was a friendly lawyer who would wander around the labs, asking about any new findings that could be patentable.’ He has also consulted for and embarked on small collaborations with several companies. Natalie undertook her PhD in a lab and at an institute that was heavily involved in the development of the influenza drug, Relenza®. This exposed her to the research path that led to commercialisation. ‘Through absorption, I learnt a lot and found the process quite inspiring,’ says Natalie.

In spite of this early exposure, for both Dale and Natalie, working in the highly competitive research grant-funded academic environment in Australia meant that the need to present and publish research has taken priority over advancing research in collaboration with industry. Combined with limited information and few examples, it has been difficult for researchers to seriously contemplate commercialisation. Buzzwords such as commercialise and translate are often bandied about, but tangible means to progress such aspirations are limited. Today, advice on how to pursue this pathway is increasingly accessible and opportunities are becoming more apparent, sparking a shift in the mindset of many academic scientists.

BioCurate was designed to help facilitate this change in attitudes through education and true partnership, allowing academic scientists to explore the potential avenues to effect impact on human health. ‘It just wasn’t standard thinking. When faced with exciting results, I would think about how good it will be to present them at an upcoming conference, how to turn them into a publication or how I’ll use them for a grant application,’ states Dale. Things are beginning to change. ‘Now I’m also thinking about whether new results we have in the lab might have commercial and clinical potential by way of industry engagement.’ The guidance BioCurate has provided to Dale has given him a clearer view of the industrial therapeutic landscape, the opportunities and options therein, and the potential courses of action. It has helped him understand the best way to navigate sensitive areas of confidentiality and how this path can be managed in the context of other academic pressures.

For Natalie, who co-leads one of the six drug discovery projects that were selected for BioCurate’s first round of project investments, the application process was, in and of itself, enlightening. ‘It was the first time I really had to think about my research assets, who am I competing with, what is on the market?’ said Natalie. Currently, BioCurate’s support has mobilised her science, providing her the resources to push forward, as well as advice on finding the balance between publishing data and maintaining the commercial viability of her research. Not only that, but Natalie has found the chance to tap into the expertise of the BioCurate team to be hugely beneficial, educational – and enjoyable! Through this, she is learning a new vocabulary – one that is aiding her in conversing with industry. Her deeper understanding of the complexities and nuances of commercialisation is facilitating this journey.

BioCurate operates in the under-resourced yet highly critical early phases of new drug development. This phase represents an unmissable opportunity to grow greater links and collaboration between academia and industry and by doing so, will improve the development of potential treatments, for small molecules and biologics, across different therapeutic areas. BioCurate bridges this gap by providing the critical ‘missing link’ – industry experience and clear commercial focus; targeted funding and project management; mentoring and support – that will enable researchers to maximise the impact of their research.