November 1, 2008 (Vol. 28, No. 19)

Laboratory for Innovative Translational Technologies Seeks to Expedite Process

A recent paradigm shift in translational research has placed the role of cutting-edge technologies that enable innovative solutions at the forefront of efforts to improve patient care. Harvard Medical School has been awarded a five-year clinical and translational science award from the NIH to launch the Harvard Catalyst, a center whose role is to transform patient-oriented medical research at the medical school.

The Laboratory for Innovative Translational Technologies (LITT), originally created and located at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine to provide the Harvard research community with early access to enabling leading-edge genomic and proteomic technologies, is now an integral part of the Harvard Catalyst.

Predating the Harvard Catalyst by a year, but prescient in its mission, the LITT was designed to accelerate the translation of laboratory research in therapeutics and diagnostics into the clinic. The LITT’s model is a collaborative research model that is distinct from traditional core centers. The model is to bring together a myriad of technologies in one place and put them to use in the hands of inventors and thought leaders.

To attract technologies from companies and to assure that investigators use their time efficiently, after importing innovative and enabling technologies the LITT will perform head-to-head comparisons between competing technologies, ultimately validating these technologies while answering the research questions supplied by members of the Harvard research community. The potential results from this kind of collaboration include publications for researchers and validation of new technology for the participating companies.

Keeping a sharp focus on translational efforts, the LITT will have an advisory board composed of CEOs, CFOs, venture capitalists, and scientific experts who understand how discovery moves from lab to the market. These advisors will serve as the eyes and ears of the LITT community for the latest technologies. Translation will be enhanced by the interaction of all of these groups as well as an active effort by the LITT to identify opportunities for academic/industry and industry/industry collaborations making the way for SBIR/STTR grants and even formation of new companies.

Many researchers with highly focused research interests and projects are unaware of nascent technologies that emerge from industry or academics. “What is unique about LITT is the connection it provides medical and clinical researchers with access to the latest in biomedical instrumentation technologies,” Colin Brenan, CTO of BioTrove, points out. “This is unusual in that it provides a forum for bringing together a potent mix of biomedical researchers, clinicians, bioinformaticians, physical scientists, and engineers.”

This is the future complexion of biomedical research organizations given the pressing need for integrated, interdisciplinary approaches to solve challenging clinical problems. LITT is committed to breaking down barriers and to increasing the awareness of these new technologies among local researchers.

LITT focuses on hosting technologies that can benefit local researchers, ranging from sample-preparation technologies to those measuring kinase activities. The technologies at LITT are from both small and large-sized companies. “LITT reaches scientists with difficult and sometimes esoteric problems that can only be solved with new technologies,” explains Nathan Lawrence, vp of marketing for Pressure BioSciences. As one can envision, this environment creates new venues for brainstorming about new approaches to tackle or expand current research projects.

Maximizing Financial Resources

LITT’s vision is to create a win-win environment between researchers and industry. Given the current funding situation researchers are facing, the LITT model has created an alternative means to obtain a competitive edge in generating high-quality data in a collaborative mode with industry. This mechanism has aided researchers in reaching their endpoints more rapidly and with markedly less upfront investment.

This represents a lower-risk strategy with respect to grant submissions and it leverages existing fiscal resources to be more productive. Concomitantly, industry partners benefit by exposure to key research laboratories and researchers within the Harvard community and access to experimental results and data generated on real-world samples.

“LITT is a perfect forum for researchers seeking enabling technologies and firms that believe they have developed such tools,” explains John Lindsay of SciPartners. “Introducing new technologies to the academic market is a time-consuming, costly process for the manufacturers, and a hit-or-miss proposition for researchers.

“Using this approach, one of our clients (PamGene) was able to provide a key assay to Bjorn Olsen, dean of research, Harvard School of Dental Medicine, which helped confirm a hypothesis of the role of VEGF receptor 2 signaling in infantile hemangiomas.”

LITT has developed a framework to evaluate both genomic and proteomic technologies. In this collaborative model, “LITT’s ability to evaluate cutting-edge technologies in a real-world environment in an unbiased manner is critical and informative,” notes Stephan Matysiak, vp and GM for Febit. LITT’s ability to maintain an open channel of communication in providing valuable assessments from a wide variety of scientists with broad experiences in similar technologies or applications provides commercially orientated instrument providers with constructive feedback early on.

Testing Forum

In addition, industry may gain insights into additional and unanticipated applications of their technology. “LITT is also a neutral and friendly testing forum for scientists to test a product prior to placing an order,” states Luke Chen, vp of sales and marketing for Phalanx Biotech. “For academic researchers, it facilitates the understanding of advantages and disadvantages of particular technologies, and turns a one-size-fits-all solution into a rational weighing of pros and cons of different technologies,” notes Lucila Ohno-Machado, director of the Decision Systems Group at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and also director of the biomedical informatics training program at Harvard-MIT.

“In addition to being a one-stop technology store that interfaces industry with technologies within the Harvard community, it will also engage in specific projects that adapt/modify new assays/technologies so that they become core technologies—user friendly, cheap, clinically robust technologies, that can be offered as services to the translational community,” states Vikas Sukhatme, director of the novel clinical and translational methodologies program of the Harvard Catalyst and chief academic officer of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Testing new instruments in a competitive scientific environment with feedback regarding reliability, user friendliness, compatibility with a given laboratory workflow, and input about other competitive technologies gives commercially orientated companies the necessary feedback to allocate their resources wisely and to adjust their course early enough toward market realities.

“In addition, LITT actively attempts to link different technologies from more than one company to find a solution for the researcher. This is beneficial for all parties and is quite unique,” notes Gajus Worthington, president and CEO of Fluidigm.

Arhat Abzhanov, assistant professor at the BioLabs at Harvard University concurs. “LITT has provided my lab with resources to obtain the crucial preliminary data for our grants, test a new idea quickly, or solve a biological problem that is not approachable using conventional technologies.”

According to Drew Senyei, managing director of Enterprise Partners Venture Capital, “LITT has hit an important concept that would be valuable in accelerating the commercialization of disruptive technologies vitally needed in translational research.” The success of LITT will be in demonstrating the organizational capability of bringing together historically disparate constituencies and proving that the combination results in valuable medical breakthroughs not possible by individual researchers.

Pasi Jänne, M.D. Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine HMS in the Lowe Center for Thoracic Oncology and director of the Translational Research Laboratory at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, sees working with LITT as the ideal opportunity to bring together clinical investigators, applied and basic research scientists, and industry scientists around new enabling technologies to solve pressing problems of conducting research in cancer patients and ultimately to improve our methods of treating the disease. The goal of clinical translational research is to move information from bench to bedside and vice versa, and to ultimately improve the quality of patient care.

For this endeavor to be successful, the information must be of a quality that can be understood and utilized by all the participants, that is, the basic scientists, clinical investigators and ultimately the medical practitioners who care for patients every day.

The greater Boston area is famous for its ability to attract world-class scientists and high-tech companies. Having a central early-access technology playground for creative scientists using new technologies will lead to a self-evolving system of innovation and commercial success and further increase in the speed of technology advancement in Massachusetts.

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