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Fast-Tracking Research

In 1993, Norma Sue Kenyon, an immunologist who had done diabetes-related research for the University of Miami, left the immunology department of a medical equipment company to accept a research position at Duke University. In the course of moving to North Carolina, however, her 14-month-old daughter Laura fell into a coma from the onset of Type 1 diabetes. Laura recovered, but Kenyon says the experience made her re-evaluate her career path. “I wanted to go back to cure-related research.”

Kenyon returned to Miami and has spent the past 19 years focused on ways to transplant “islets” — clusters of hormone-producing cells manufactured by the pancreas that show promise in curing diabetes. The problem with islets is that the body tends to reject them, forcing patients onto a lifelong regimen of anti-rejection  drugs.

Along the way, Kenyon became a proponent of translational research, a so-called “bench-to-bedside” approach that aims to fast-track promising scientific research from the lab into medical uses that benefit patients. “If we really want to have an impact, we have to find ways to commercialize and move those products forward,” she says.

Funding research

Since 2004, Kenyon has directed UM’s Wallace H. Coulter Center for Translational Research, which provides funding that scientists often need to bridge the gap between a promising project and a patented medical product. The foundation’s grants typically range from $100,000 to $150,000.

A committee of venture capitalists, angel investors, entrepreneurs, clinicians, corporate types and others decides which projects have the most promise — including some that have been licensed to startup companies.

In 2011, Joshua Hare co-founded a company in Miami Beach called Heart Genomics. Using gene signature technology that he developed at UM’s Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute, the startup is developing a non-invasive test that will provide a “highly accurate assessment of the five-year prognosis of heart failure patients.”

Another project, spearheaded by Eckhard Podack, chairman of the university’s department of microbiology and immunology, resulted in the development of a lung cancer vaccine and an anti-inflammatory agent for asthma sufferers that have been licensed to a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based company called Heat Biologics. The lung cancer vaccine is in phase 2 clinical trials, and the company is planning to test the technology on bladder cancer patients in a phase 1/phase 2 trial set to begin later this year.

As the program grows, Kenyon aims to provide not just funding, but also business development support to the university’s inventors. From the moment an inventor files an invention disclosure, her office will be helping with everything from finding investors to finding a CEO for a startup. The goal, she says, is to find the “quickest path to commercialization.”

“A lot of donors ask me, ‘Why would you spend time on this commercialization piece?’ ” says Kenyon. “My answer to them is if we don’t figure out a way to take some of our inventions and some of what we do and commercialize them, then our children won’t have access to cures in the future.”