If Dave Poulsen’s research gets approval from federal regulators for medical use, Poulsen and his employer, the University of Montana, stand to make a lot of money on meth.
Poulsen’s unique methamphetamine application, which he co-developed with Nick Chandler, a former Missoula neurosurgeon, could generate millions in royalty payments for UM.
More important, this drug deal could save the lives of stroke victims – there are some 800,000 each year in this country alone – and dramatically improve the quality of life for those individuals, and also of people who suffer traumatic brain injuries.
Poulsen said he’s so confident about his research findings that “I know if I ever had a stroke or traumatic brain injury, I’d want to be treated with this stuff.”
Pharmaceutical-grade meth – not the kind cooked up from household cleaning products by addicts or street dealers – is a U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved drug that has been used for decades to treat ailments such as narcolepsy, attention deficit disorder and obesity.
Poulsen, who is licensed to use the drug for research, has discovered meth is something of a miracle prescription for rats that have had strokes.
This is what he found: When a rat is given a dose after a stroke, meth effectively protects brain cells from dying off and returns the animals to near-normal function.
The same, he believes, could be true for humans.
This discovery is likely to transform human life, and a few years of FDA-approved trials on human stroke victims, which begin early next year, will tell for sure.
Poulsen’s meth project and other campus discoveries – such as UM chemistry professor Ed Rosenberg’s resin that removes heavy metals from mine waste – are categorized as “intellectual properties.”
Translated, that means they have great capacity to be something else. Something both useful and valuable.
In academic terms, it’s called technology transfer. In business terms, it’s called commercialization.
By either definition, these inventions that originate on campus are a viable source for economic development with far-ranging benefits off campus, said Joe Fanguy, UM’s newly hired director of technology transfer.
All the promise and all the talent for turning academic exploration into profit are already in place at UM, said Fanguy, who at age 32 is a scientist-inventor, and most recently served as assistant director of Mississippi State University’s Office of Technology.
The challenge, however, is to inspire and create a culture at UM that embraces the notion.
Until Fanguy’s hiring, technology transfer was not a Main Hall priority, largely in part because there wasn’t a full-time position dedicated to the many issues of commercialization.
Patents and licensing, and understanding the legality of such matters, is complicated and time-consuming, explained Rosenberg. And while Tony Rudbach, the last person in charge of technology transfer at UM, tried to move things forward, he had many other campus duties to juggle as associate vice president for research and development.
Fanguy said he looks forward to being UM’s full-time tech transfer guy, the leader who will help usher in a new era of research development at UM. Among his many first tasks is connecting with funding sources and angel investors to help UM’s scientists and inventors get their work out of the laboratory.
“There’s not a lot of awareness of how we do technology transfer or why it’s important,” Fanguy said. “This is a new thing and my job is to make people more aware that it’s UM’s priority to do this.”
Taking a research discovery from campus to commercialization is a lengthy and often timely process, Fanguy said.
Sometimes, such efforts pay off in huge ways, such as the University of Florida’s inventions of Gatorade and the cancer drug Taxol, or Northwestern’s invention of Lyrica, a treatment for fibromyalgia.
In most cases, tech transfer has a more modest impact for campuses and the world at large. By Fanguy’s estimate, it will take a good five years to increase UM patents and licensure productivity, and a good 10 years before any benefits are realized.
Currently, UM research has 28 patents, 23 active licenses and 14 companies that have spun out of those licenses.
While the University of Montana will not likely compete with the nation’s big research institutions, it certainly can come close to the model created by Montana State University.
That’s a reasonable goal – and a challenge, Fanguy said.
Said Poulsen: “From a technology transfer standpoint, we are about 10 years behind them. They’ve had a pretty good program going on for a while.”
Despite the cross-state athletic rivalry with MSU, when it comes to research, specifically technology transfer, MSU is celebrating UM’s decision to hire a full-time tech transfer director.
“We would love to have increased activity in tech transfer because it benefits everyone,” said Becky Mahurin, director of MSU’s technology transfer office.
Mahurin was so pleased with UM’s decision that she drove to Missoula during a recent snowstorm to meet Fanguy and talk shop.
“It’s nice to have people to bounce ideas off of and who are in the same business,” she said. “I’m sure we will have an invention co-owned by MSU and UM and will have a lot of collaborative work.”
For certain, UM could take a lesson from MSU.
The Bozeman university was cited by Business Week magazine as one of the nation’s Top 10 small research universities.
Such accolades are not surprising when Mahurin talks about the school’s research achievements, which have resulted in 110 patents, 11 patented agriculture-based inventions, eight trademarks, 115 patents pending and 182 licenses, of which 103 have become Montana companies.
One of those companies, LigoCyte Pharmaceuticals Inc., which develops vaccines, spun out of MSU research and is now a Bozeman-based company that employs more than 50 people who have an average annual salary that exceeds $50,000 a year.
“Those are the kinds of jobs we want to build for the graduates of all our universities,” Mahurin said. “More than half of the employees at LigoCyte are MSU grads.
“We love that, and those kinds of companies provide internships for our undergraduates, and they attract other researchers to this state.”
As funding battles continue to be fought between the Montana University System and state legislators, one thing needs to be considered.
It is in every state’s best interest to support university efforts to grow technology transfer, said Joe Fondacaro, founder of the Center for Technology Commercialization at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, and former vice president of the Association of University Technology Managers.
“Technology transfer is a wonderful source of regional economic development,” Fondacaro said. “Here in Cincinnati, we have two major research centers, a children’s hospital and the University of Cincinnati, and between the two of them, we started 12 to 15 companies in the past three or four years.
“These companies have created more employment opportunities for this area – and this does something else: It keeps Cincinnati money in Cincinnati.”
Such success breeds more success, Fondacaro said.
“The big question everyone asks is how long does it take for taxpayers to realize the benefit of their investment? When you have research that may lead to new pharmaceutical processes, that’s a long process, on average of 12 years to develop a new drug,” he said. “When you are talking medical devices or diagnostic equipment, that’s more like five years and as little as 18 months.”
No matter the time commitment, he said, we all benefit. By way of example, Fondacaro cited a recent Boston University survey showing that 51 percent of drug applications currently under FDA review were discovered at university research centers.
As is the challenge in other parts of the country, at other universities, for UM to be successful it needs the highest level of support from its top administrators, Fondacaro said.
“This is one of the hardest steps in all of this,” he said. “What you are trying to do is mix a business enterprise inside the academic culture, and traditionally those don’t mix well.”
Rosenberg and Poulsen have great faith Fanguy is up to the challenge.
He’s got the credentials, the background and the energy to carry the new mission forward. And in the halls of research, faculty are cheering about this new chapter in UM’s history.
“It’s a very positive thing,” Rosenberg said. “It’s a statement of faith that the faculty will be developing things that are of commercial interest to the community.”
For Poulsen, this new direction couldn’t have come at a better time.
“A lot of the projects that we have been evolving over the past decade are reaching the point where they are ripe for commercial development,” Poulsen said.
“We are now at a critical point, where we can really capitalize on this technology and move it into the public domain where people can actually benefit.”
By BETSY COHEN
December 12, 2009