Academics have a role to play in the acceleration of biomedical innovation. And SPARK, a translational research program at Stanford University is proving how important academicians are in slashing the time taken to bring novel therapeutics to market.
Maryam Mahdi | | Interview
Many academicians will, no doubt, be able to attest to the fact that years of research can seem to fall by the wayside as pharmaceutical companies refuse to take their novel discoveries for further development into therapeutics, creating barriers to the progression of translational research. It’s well known that out of 10,000 new drugs developed at the bench, only one will often make it to the bedside, but are fixed ideas about what the drug development process should look like preventing this from changing? Aware that the starkly obvious cultural divide between academia and industry can create roadblocks to biomedical innovation, Daria Mochly-Rosen, George D Smith Professor in Translational Medicine, and Professor in Chemical and Systems Biology at Stanford University, set out to create a new initiative to help academics take their inspiring work further. Daria is the founder and co-director of SPARK at Stanford and president of SPARK Global.
What is the story behind SPARK?
I believe we, in academia, have a part to play if we want to serve patients worldwide. In 2006, I founded SPARK as a not-for-profit program at Stanford University to take promising advances in biomedical research and help translate them into new therapeutic options for patients. The campus-based program is based on collaboration between industry experts and academic investigators in the pursuit of novel drugs and diagnostics for all diseases, with a special emphasis on pediatric, maternal and neglected diseases areas. While being of significant clinical relevance, these disease areas are often left untouched in terms of drug development. The regulatory challenges and ethical issues associated with maternal and pediatric pharmaceuticals have perhaps left many in the industry with the feeling that the stakes were too high when it came to the development of new treatments for these areas of unmet clinical need.
For us, it is a moral imperative to address these issues. The needs of these patient populations are just as severe as any other patient group and they cause a significant burden for healthcare organizations worldwide. In 2017, it was estimated that over one billion people worldwide were affected by a neglected disease – one-sixth of the world’s population!
By focusing on filling in the white spaces around these therapeutic areas, SPARK gained the attention of the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford University’s School of Medicine. They recognized the importance of what we were trying to achieve through the program and offered us funding. While the program is primarily funded by the university’s medical school, the fund it receives from other philanthropic organizations and the National Institutes of Health have helped the program grow into what it is today – a research center with a success rate of over 50 percent when bringing potential therapies to the clinical trial or to a licensing stage. In comparison, the industry’s success rate is 10 percent for projects at the same stage of development. A major aspect of SPARK’s ethos is to operate effectively without commercial incentives, as funding derived from these types of channels would create a conflict of interest for the dozens of industry volunteers in the program.
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