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Innovator: Lab findings must be 'translated' into therapies

Published February 22, 2012 6:23 pm

Science • Former biotech exec Susan Desmond-Hellmann brings business sense to academia.
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For campus-based biomedical research to stay relevant, it needs to move past basic discoveries and develop treatments more quickly.

That was the key message of Susan Desmond-Hellmann, a biotech leader turned university leader, to a University of Utah audience Tuesday.

"The United States spends more on medical breakthroughs than any other country, but are we healthier? Is it accessible, is it affordable and will it change the health of the community?" asked Desmond-Hellmann, chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco, during a meeting of the Benning Society. "If it doesn't reach the community because it's unaffordable or they don't have access because their clinician doesn't know about it, we haven't accomplished anything."

Desmond-Hellmann enjoyed a successful career developing new cancer drugs at Genentech before the University of California recruited her in 2009.

She is among the few university leaders chosen from the ranks of industry, and academics playing close attention to how her tenure plays out at a major biomedical research hub. Under her watch, the National Institute of Health has awarded its largest-ever grant, $112 million over five years, to pursue "translational" research, or converting what is learned in the lab into new treatments.

UCSF's progress under her leadership is "proof that a culture of freedom and exploration" produces results, said cardiologist Dean Li, the U. med school's vice dean for research, who introduced Desmond-Hellmann before her talk at the Rice-Eccles Stadium tower. Li suggested the U. consider embracing her vision, which calls for structuring research with an eye toward marketable results.

Desmond-Hellmann grew up in Reno and attended the local branch campus of the University of Nevada for college and medical school, then did her residency in oncology at UCSF in 1982. She treated cancer patients for several years, before moving to the pharmaceutical industry to work on drugs that aim for molecular targets on cancer cells. While she headed product development at Genentech, the company released its breakthrough drug Herceptin, which is effective against only the most aggressive forms of breast cancer.

Now she hopes to foster similar successes at UCSF. Translational science is summed up in the cliche "bench to bedside." Desmond-Hellmann advocates inverting this model.

"This arrow moves in both directions. Some of the most exciting research is what I call reverse translation, going from the bedside and going back to the scientists and say, 'Here's what we need,'" she said. But coming up with new treatments is not enough. Those treatments need to prevent disease, reduce cost and actually improve the overall health of society.

A key federal player in this area is NIH, which spent about $35 billion last year on biomedical research, most of it awarded in the form of grants to universities. The agency accounts for half the $400 million the U. receives in recent years in outside funding for research, fueling much of the activity on the upper campus.

"We have gotten a fantastic return on investment. Our system is the envy of the world," Desmond-Hellmann said. "The number of patients who can live with cancer is a near miracle to me and it was made possible by NIH spending."

Since universities are never going to sell products, they need outside help funneling innovations into the marketplace. Since UCSF opened its Mission Bay campus, a 1-million-square-foot research complex, in 2003, the university has spun off 70 companies, according to Desmond-Hellmann. The U. likewise reports robust start-up activity, even though some of these new companies have existed only on paper, disappear without landing grants or have limited connection to sponsored research on campus.

"If we want to get these wonderful things to society we need to partner with commercial enterprise," she said. "We can set up industry partnerships that maintain academic freedom, avoid conflicts of interest, and maintain intellectual property interests."