Inside Salk; Salk Insitute

A License to Heal

Office of Technology Development

Members of the Office of Technology Development team, from left to right: Ha Nguyen, Lina Axanova, Robert S. MacWright, Kiren Rockenstein, Rachel Mullen, Paul Roben

Salk's Office of Technology Development helps turn discoveries into marketable therapies. Robert MacWright sees his job as building bridges between Salk laboratories and patients' lives.

Guided by that philosophy, he has worked to establish a closer relationship between his office and Salk's researchers since joining the Institute in February 2011 as the executive director of the Office of Technology Development. He and his team are helping Salk scientists to identify discoveries that could be turned into marketable therapies and to navigate the process of patenting and licensing those breakthroughs.

"A lot of academic research is aimed at trying to understand and defeat human disease," says MacWright. "The reality, however, is that important discoveries will never make it to the market if they aren't patented."

Before coming to Salk, MacWright served for over a decade as executive director, CEO and chief patent counsel of the University of Virginia Patent Foundation and as executive director of the Rutgers University Office of Corporate Liaison and Technology Transfer. This experience taught him that legal protection of research discoveries helps support an academic institution's research mission, through returns on licensing agreements with private companies, and by paving the way for discoveries to be translated into therapies.

"If a technology isn't protected, it's too risky for a company to develop it into a product," MacWright says. "A pharmaceutical company isn't going to risk the hundreds of millions of dollars it costs to bring a new drug to market if they don't have patents that protect them from competition until they make enough profits to justify that early expense."

To better acquaint Salk researchers with patents and their importance to academic institutions, MacWright's team has held a series of popular monthly seminars. He has also formed a faculty advisory committee to pinpoint the needs of Salk scientists and introduce the faculty to the philosophy of the office. A team of four licensing experts in the Office of Technology Development is meeting with Salk laboratories to become familiar with their research and scout for breakthroughs that might be patented and licensed.

MacWright offers the example asfotase alfa, a drug developed in the laboratory of the late Salk scientist Leslie Orgel, as a success story in commercializing a biomedical discovery. The drug has not yet been approved by the FDA but has shown promise in early trials for treating children with hypophosphatasia, a rare genetic disease that prevents normal bone development, and it could eventually be used for treating osteoporosis. First patented in 2002, asfotase alfa was licensed exclusively in 2006 to Enobia Pharma, which was later acquired for nearly $1 billion by Alexion Pharmaceuticals.

"Infants with this disease rarely survive, and this technology literally gives them life," MacWright says. "I've seen the most remarkable set of x-rays of an infant's hand, one taken before treatment, where there are almost no bones in the hand, and another taken after treatment, showing a completely normal bone structure."

More recently, Reuben Shaw, an associate professor in Salk's Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory, worked with the technology development office to license a genetically engineered strain of mice to a major biotechnology company. The company plans to use the mice in preclinical trials of lung cancer therapies.

"This gives the company a valuable tool to develop better cancer therapies without having to spend an inordinate amount of time and money duplicating our work," Shaw says. "It's very gratifying, because drug development is where the rubber hits the road. I'm proud our research is being put to direct and immediate use to help people."

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