Doing things differently: New models for support and collaboration

Originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of  ARVONews

Most of the research of the majority of ARVO members — worldwide — is funded through government grants. But even in countries with well-established government funding mechanisms, eye researchers are feeling the pinch of greater competition for shrinking pots of grant money.

As a result, investigators are looking for new funding sources; in the U.S., this often means seeking funding from government granting bodies other than NEI.

But entrepreneurialism is alive and well in eye research, with some institutions establishing truly alternative sources of funding and ways of doing research. Read on to discover how two organizations are carving out their own paths.

Queensland Eye Institute
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

The typical eye research institute in Australia is closely aligned with a university and heavily dependent on university and state department of health funding.

Queensland Eye

But Queensland Eye Institute (QEI) is different, according to Mark Radford, MD, PhD, QEI’s executive director and CEO. “QEI was established totally independently by the Prevent Blindness Foundation (now the Queensland Eye Institute Foundation).  

We’re primarily funded by donations and bequests, and also by a major benefactor, the Sylvia and Charles Viertel Charitable Foundation.”

The Viertel Foundation funding recently supported a $10 million renovation of a building in Brisbane that opened in June and features state-of-the-art clinical facilities, a day hospital, research labs, a medical library and a teaching center.

“We designed QEI’s operational model so that we wouldn’t be overly dependent on donations or government grants,” explains Radford. “Such funding is getting harder to obtain. Our challenge was to ensure we have a sustainable revenue source when times are tough.

“So the income from the day hospital, the clinical facilities and clinical trials funds our education and training activities. Net revenue is put back into the QEI Foundation to fund our research.” 

The research — and the researchers — are diverse, and QEI carries out some of its work through a series of international collaborations with groups in Japan, Germany and elsewhere, which Radford describes as a hub-and-spoke model.

“We have four senior scientists on staff, as well as PhD and master’s degree students from universities here in Brisbane.

The advantage of a small group is that it encourages collaboration. For example, we can have a cell biologist working with a polymer chemist, or a neurophysiologist working with a tissue engineer. They talk to each other and this encourages thinking laterally to solve problems.

“In addition, clinicians with a challenge or an opportunity can go straight to the researchers for solutions, whether it’s biological, chemical or involving biomaterials.

“Let’s say a problem requires an immunologist,” explains Radford. “We don’t have one, so we would propose a collaboration with another institution. Each side covers its own costs or we apply for grants together, locally
or overseas. We put in place memorandum of understanding agreements to articulate how intellectual property is shared.”

Currently, QEI scientists in the biomaterials and regenerative medicine groups are developing a process for restoration of the ocular surface by using a protein isolated from the cocoons of domesticated silkworms.

“We were the first in the world to report such a use for silk proteins,” says Radford. “In short, we isolate and purify a silk protein known as fibroin and prepare transparent membranes from it. The membranes are then used to support the growth of certain eye cells, including stem cells, which were cultivated in a test tube. The
layers of growing cells together with their fibroin substrate are transplanted by our surgeons onto the damaged portion of the ocular surface. The cells will continue to grow and, in time, will integrate with the host tissue leading to the regeneration of the damaged tissue. The fibroin substrate will degrade slowly at the transplantation site and will disappear in a few months without any consequences.”

Another project aims to develop a replacement for the corneal endothelium. Based on the hypothesis that the transport of fluid and ions through the endothelium occurs primarily through electroosmotic flow, QEI researchers are developing porous membranes able to assure the electrokinetic conditions for such a transport.

“Our team of stem cell biologists is exploring the clinical potential of progenitor cells isolated from all three layers of the cornea,” adds Radford, “and our neuroscientists are investigating novel mechanisms to improve the survival of retinal cells in diseases including glaucoma.” 

QEI also continues to explore new methods of delivering clinical care in Queensland, as well as develop new international collaborations. “Ultimately, our aim is sustainability and effectiveness in all that we do,” says Radford.

 

Center for Translational Medicine
John A. Moran Eye Center
University of Utah
Salt Lake City, Utah

Moran Eye Center’s Center for Translational Medicine (CTM) has just one research focus — and one overriding ambition. The development of effective diagnostics and treatments for age-related macular degeneration (AMD) — through a partnership with an early stage life sciences company, Voyant Biotherapeutics LLC, that has established a research collaboration with Allergan — is “the goal,” according to Gregory Hageman, PhD, CTM’s executive director. “The dream” is nothing less than improving the lives of millions and endowing research at the Moran Eye Center for posterity.CTM Moran Eye

Hageman, who got his start in science as a marine biologist, turned his attention to eye research when he watched how AMD affected the last years of his wife’s grandmother. His efforts to find the underlying biological cause of the disease — and the subsequent discovery of a role for aberrant complement activation — gave him early exposure to industry.

“My colleagues and I initially raised a couple million dollars from Johnson & Johnson Development to support our research,” Hageman explains. “This introduced me early to industry collaborations, and we have had productive relationships with numerous commercial partners — including Alcon, Allergan, American Cyanamid, American Home Products, Bausch and Lomb, Pfizer and Novartis — since that time.”

Such partnerships, built on strong agreements, are natural, believes Hageman. “Pharma understands the drug development process, but often lacks many of the resources that exist in academia, such as patients, tissues like human donor eyes and the knowledge of disease that derives from these resources.” 

In 2007, Hageman began talking with Randall Olson, MD, Moran’s CEO and chair of the University of Utah’s Ophthalmology Department, about creating an environment within the Moran Eye Center that would blend industry and academic collaboration to shorten the time between discovery and drug development.

Hageman relocated to Salt Lake City and with Olson and the Moran leadership spent a year developing a rigorous plan.

In 2010, the Center for Translational Medicine (CTM) was launched with Hageman at the helm. He and his colleagues then set to work assembling a team, establishing collaborations, enhancing resources and developing platforms for intellectual property.

“In that first four-year phase, our aim was to build a team of scientists and clinicians focused on one mission: to expedite the pace at which pathways and targets for early stage AMD are identified and verified,” says Hageman. “We now have a team comprised of 50 incredibly talented individuals.”

The development of a strong partnership with the Utah Lions Eye Bank led to eye donations at a rate of about one donor per day. Over 20% of these donors were patients at the Moran prior to death. The repository now has 6,500 pairs of eyes, complete with clinical ophthalmic records dating back 25 years. Moreover, CTM has recruited over 3,000 AMD study patients.

“Initially, the bulk of our funding came from NIH and philanthropic sources,” explains Hageman. The plan called for a working partnership with the ophthalmic pharmaceutical industry by the fourth year. That goal was realized in a partnership with Voyant Biotherapeutics, LLC, which established a research collaboration with Allergan.

Voyant was created, among other reasons, as a mechanism to build a dialogue and contractual relationship with pharma and to sequester IP through licensing agreements with other universities.

“I’ve known the Allergan team for a long time,” says Hageman, “And the more we talked to them, the more we became confident that this was a team we wanted to work with — a group of scientists who had been together for 15 – 20 years; it’s unheard of.”

Hageman explains that familiarity with Allergan staff, in light of the fact that academic and corporate environments are so different, made negotiations pleasant.

“In addition to funding, Allergan’s in-kind contributions are very important to our collaboration.

“I cherish our collaborations with colleagues and institutions around the world, many of whom are affiliated with
the CTM,” he says. “Teamwork is important, because science is so complicated; it’s impossible to do what we are trying to do alone. Collaborations have allowed us to supplement NIH funding with monies from corporate partners, which in turn has helped many of our colleagues to obtain additional sources of local funding.

“A real hope is that, through the identification of druggable AMD-associated pathways and therapeutic products,
money will flow back to the Moran, essentially leveraging and multiplying the funds provided by so many wonderful individuals who have believed and invested in our program. 

“We envision this as a way to secure the future of scientific activities at the Moran. We’re not naive. It’s tough out there funding-wise, especially if one relies solely on government funding. I hate seeing so many talented, young minds out there capable of getting the job done — but without the resources to do it. Hopefully our efforts will help these younger scientists realize that there are other sources of alternative funding out there.”

Hageman describes Olson as uniquely entrepreneurial. “Academia needs to modify its overall approach to supporting research,” he says. “Administrators are beginning to realize that the system needs to change. But it’s one thing to realize that a change is in order, and quite another to actually implement the change. Dr. Olson is a true visionary. Quite simply, there are not many leaders with this kind of vision and drive. I believe that numerous institutions will eventually mimic the path that Dr. Olson has paved.”

Hageman says that Olson, the CTM and the Voyant-Allergan relationship are “allowing my team to conduct science that I could only have dreamed of five years ago. Ultimately, we aim to prevent or slow the progression of AMD within 10 years. Almost every day I talk to someone who is visually impaired because of AMD, to family members of afflicted individuals who are afraid of developing the disease or to caregivers whose lives are affected. It’s a devastating disease. Our goal at Moran is to get this job done and ease the suffering.”

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