Boston Children’s Hospital: Innovating from bench to bedside

June 10, 2015 ctheodoropulos

Translating innovation from the bench to the bedside is integral to the mission of Boston Children’s Hospital.

Research runs the gamut from biotech and pharmaceutical development to devices, diagnostics and healthcare IT, and is led by researchers who often are appointed not just to Boston Children’s Hospital, but also to prestigious institutions in the area.

“Boston Children’s Hospital is a steward for children who need special care,” said Irene Abrams, Senior Director of the Technology & Innovation Development Office. This hospital is one of the leading pediatric hospitals in the United States and ranks first among pediatric research hospitals in terms of the federal funding it receives and third among all independent research hospitals. Those monies fund research in genetics, rare diseases and other work that improves patients’ lives.

Irene Abrams, senior director of the technology & innovation development office, Boston Children's Hospital

Irene Abrams, Senior Director of the Technology & Innovation Development Office, Boston Children’s Hospital

Guiding hospital R&D

“We have many different activities and groups to bring innovation to patients,” Abrams said.

Her office develops hospital research so it’s ready to be transferred externally for eventual commercialization. The process includes developing intellectual property strategies, commercialization plans and deal structures. “We not only negotiate technology transfer agreements, but manage those relationships throughout their life cycles,” she added.

Pre-competitive risk reduction

By working closely with its researchers, Boston Children’s Hospital also aims to reduce risk for potential partners by making development and commercialization as easy and straightforward as possible.

Intellectual property protection is at the forefront of those activities. “We have a strategy to protect the invention so, when a company invests, it has the protection it needs to build a market,” Abrams said.

Its internal grants programs for proof of concept (PoC) and subsequent innovation acceleration also reduce risks while supporting researchers.

PoC grants enable researchers to leverage the broader biopharma community—including contract research organizations and advisors from the local biotech and pharma community—and access resources that may not be available at Boston Children’s Hospital. Often, this is the final step that makes the difference between a scientifically interesting project and one with commercialization potential.

Grants are awarded based upon recommendations from an external advisory group composed of life science experts from nearby biopharma and venture capital companies.

The Proof of Concept grant provides up to USD 50,000 to validate early stage projects with commercial potential. The other, later stage, Technology Development Grant provides up to USD 150,000 for work once the concept has been validated. With both grants, approximately 70 percent of the funds are spent with contract research organizations to develop the technology in ways that support commercial interests.

“We fund about 10 projects per year,” Abrams said. Those winning funding work with the board to develop a roadmap to guide their development. The advisory board mentors those projects, helping shape them in ways to attract commercial interest.

One grant recipient, Richard Malley, MD, develops novel vaccines. “After receiving this PoC funding, the technology was spun out into a new company called Affinivax, which was the first company to receive investment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,” Abrams said. The funding will enable the development of novel vaccines to protect children and adults in both the developed and developing worlds, with an initial focus on the company’s lead drug program for Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus).

Other projects that began at Boston Children’s Hospital have been commercialized by Agilent, Athena Diagnostics, Biogen, Celgene, Pfizer and many others firms.

The Technology & Innovation Development Office remains involved even after grants are awarded, Abrams said. “We’re fairly involved with our researchers. We meet with them and discuss what needs to be done. We stay in touch and help them problem-solve, and also work with the advisory board to help them move forward.”

That contact may include managing projects and connecting principal investigators to a broad network of industry experts. The result is a development and commercialization pathway that is as smooth as possible.

For complex relationships with multiple collaborators, organizations and investigators, Boston Children’s Hospital also staffs a business development group. Relationships managed by this office often span many years.

Time is ripe for partnerships

“We’re in a really good place at the moment in terms of industry/academic partnerships,” Abrams said. “Both parties have a high need for what the other brings to the table, so there’s more collaboration, creative partnerships and openness to compromise.”

The impetus for today’s productive collaborations, she said, are molded by economic and business constraints. Academia feels the pinch of federal funding restraints. Industry, meanwhile, is looking outward for innovation as companies endeavor to increase the novel projects in their pipelines.

For industry and academia to work together requires creativity and compromise since the missions of academia and for-profit corporations are so different. Consequently, the difficulties industry/academic partnerships encounter rarely involve money.

For example, Abrams said, the “publish or perish” axiom remains very relevant for academics. “Their mission is knowledge dissemination. Therefore, career advancement and grant funding depend upon publication.” Industry, in contrast, needs proprietary information to gain patents and assure competitive advantage.

A common solution, she said, gives the corporate partner the right to review papers before publication, thus protecting confidential information and maintaining perceived market advantages while acceding to investigators’ mission to publish.

Vast local resources

The collaborative imperative in the Boston life sciences community is especially strong, Abrams said. Beyond the obvious collaboration opportunities among companies and academic institutions, “the community has the resources to support innovation.” They include incubators and facilities where young companies can rent lab space, as well as attorneys and venture capitalists accustomed to working with life sciences and with early stage companies.

Boston also has a large population of graduate students and post-docs that form a highly capable work force to help build out a company.

“I can’t think of a better place to work. Boston has an incredibly rich, collaborative research community,” Abrams added. And, speaking as one of a married couple, “it’s easy for both partners to have fulfilling careers in the area because there are so many opportunities. That attracts people to the region and keeps them here which, in turn, attracts more companies.

“Having so many resources nearby makes it much easier for researchers to build professional relationships,” Abrams continued. Because of the depth and breadth of the life sciences community, it’s not difficult for investigators to look beyond their prescribed roles and work cross-collaboratively. “Medical researchers, for example, also may be interested in sensors,” she said. “They can find a wealth of academic experts locally who are working in that field and may be open to collaboration.”

Expanding professional relationships is one of the key reasons Abrams and her colleagues are attending BioPharm America™ in Boston September 15–17. This will be Abram’s first time but, she said, “my colleagues tell me it’s the most productive partnering meeting they attend. They not only meet more companies, but many of those conversations lead to actual opportunities.”

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