Four teams of Brown University researchers have been awarded up to $100,000 each to accelerate the translation of their scientific discoveries into commercial products that could benefit patients facing urgent medical challenges. Projects range from treating a rare childhood genetic disease to finding a new way to combat a deadly cancer.
In its third annual award cycle, Brown Biomedical Innovations to Impact (BBII) also supported research that aims to allow better collaboration in surgery and to grow human tissues for use in patients after heart attacks.
“The goal is to support and advance biomedical technologies that show great promise to dramatically improve medical care,” said Karen Bulock, managing director of BBII.
Yet even when an idea has strong potential, she explained, there is often a gap in the commercialization process between when federal research funding ends and private investors are ready to invest.
“We want to help fill that gap, targeting critical medical needs,” Bulock said. “We look for technology that has commercial potential and a proposal that is focused on ‘moving the needle’ on the commercialization path.”
As an accelerator fund that supports academic biomedical technologies, BBII is run by the University’s Division of Biology and Medicine in collaboration with Brown Technology Innovations, part of the Office of the Vice President for Research. Project proposals were evaluated by an external advisory committee of industry leaders, including from medical, pharmaceutical and venture capital companies.
“BBII is a significant investment by the University to seed cutting-edge translational medical research,” said Jill Pipher, Brown’s vice president for research and a professor of mathematics. “This initiative supports projects that have the potential for near-term impact on society’s most urgent medical problems.”
She added that BBII also could inspire accelerator funds in other fields at Brown.
BBII is part of Brown and the Innovation Economy — an initiative launched in 2018 outlining strategic actions for how the University can best contribute to innovation and the growth of stable, well-paying jobs in Rhode Island. BBII was started with $8 million in philanthropic gifts from Brown donors. Below is an overview of the selected projects.
Treating a rare childhood genetic disorder
Dr. Eric Morrow, an associate professor of molecular biology, cell biology and biochemistry and director of the Center for Translational Neuroscience at the Carney Institute for Brain Science, is working to develop a treatment for a rare genetic disorder called GPT-2 disease that causes intellectual and developmental disability and progressive neurodegeneration with motor problems. His laboratory was part of a team of collaborators that discovered the cause of this disease, which disrupts metabolic pathways in the brain. Morrow will use BBII funding to identify and test potential treatment strategies to rescue development and prevent disease progression.
Enabling better collaboration in surgery
Dr. Francois Luks, a professor of surgery, is developing an improvement to the videography system used with minimally invasive surgery (MIS). At present, that type of surgery, which offers smaller scars and faster recovery, limits the ability of multiple members of a team to perform tasks simultaneously because the video from the endoscopic camera can only provide a single narrow view. In traditional surgery, each surgical team member can more easily contribute to the operation, often performing multiple actions simultaneously and optimizing patient safety and other success. A system called Driver-Assisted VIDeoscopic surgery (DAVID) being developed by Luks offers the possibility of a large change in MIS: the ability to further involve a whole team. It uses input from a single endoscopic camera and splices it into multiple, independently manipulated images, and it can be used with existing MIS equipment.
Growing human biomaterials for post-heart attack repair
Advancing their method of producing lab-grown, human-derived tissue to fabricate biomaterials for cardiac repair after a heart attack is the subject of the award to Jeffrey Morgan, a professor of medical science and engineering; Blanche Ip, an assistant professor (research) of medical science; and Dr. Frank Sellke, a professor of cardiothoracic surgery and director of the Cardiovascular Institute at Rhode Island Hospital. The team grows human heart cells in the lab to produce a scaffold called extracellular matrix (ECM) and then removes the cells. The ECM could be injected into the damaged part of the heart to encourage growth and repair, a significantly less invasive procedure than a heart transplant. The team will focus on determining the optimal conditions to produce human ECM with the proper characteristics for testing in rodents and scaling up. This is the continuation of a project that received a previous BBII award in 2019.
A new way to combat glioblastoma
Nikos Tapinos, an associate professor (research) of neurosurgery, is developing a potential new treatment to fight glioblastoma, the most prevalent and aggressive type of brain tumor. Currently, despite treatment efforts, tumor recurrence is inevitable primarily due to the presence of a type of cancer cell called glioma stem cells (GSCs). The Tapinos lab has shown that some specific members of a class of molecular targets known as enhancer RNA (eRNA) are important for growth of GSCs. He will use BBII funds to discover and develop drugs to interfere with these eRNAs and stop the growth of GSCs and change the treatment course for glioblastoma.