A Timely Tool: Innovation Discovery Grants

A look at two Innovation Discovery Grants programs and a snapshot of how IDG bridges the translational gap.

In the race to develop a handheld magnetic resonance device that can measure lung tissue density at the patient bedside, $50,000 might seem like a drop in the bucket.

But a $50,000 award from Partners HealthCare’s Innovation Discovery Grant (IDG) program was exactly what innovator Sam Patz, PhD, needed to move beyond simulations and perform breathing experiments in healthy humans – bringing Patz’ team one step closer to reducing the “unacceptably high” mortality rate from ventilator-induced lung injuries.

Patz, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and scientific director of the Center for Pulmonary Functional Imaging at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), says the IDG program drives the translational pipeline because it helps researchers bridge the gap between federal funding and venture investment.

“Our NIH funding allowed us to build the prototype and make phantom measurements, but we needed to demonstrate that it worked in humans – and that it worked well enough to detect conditions in which lungs would be damaged by the ventilator,” says Patz. “That’s where the IDG support came in. It definitely put us over the edge.”

The IDG process is a significant resource, both for investigators at Partners and for driving commercial development, notes Keith Kerman, MD, a member of Partners Healthcare’s Innovation Advisory Board and an Operating Partner and Senior Advisor with The Riverside Company, a global private equity firm.

“Investigators got direct, real-time feedback and direction from a panel of experienced industry investors,” Kerman notes. “From an industry perspective, it’s great to have a front row seat and to able to participate in really exciting commercial development opportunities.

The IDG program was initiated in 2013 as a means to help Partners-affiliated innovators — scientists, clinicians and other innovators — bridge the gap between proof-of-concept studies and the commercial development of devices, drugs, diagnostics, software, care systems or strategies that benefit patient care.

The first round of awards provided funding to 20 projects focused on topics as diverse as device prototyping, pre-clinical studies, software development and beyond. The program targets projects with direct potential for licensing, industry partnership, or spinoffs.

“The scientific quality and potential commercial impact of the IDG award projects is quite impressive,” says Kerman. In addition to the MR lung density device, he notes, the program funded several other projects with high commercial relevance including new software tools to predict pulmonary embolism outcomes and photochemical techniques to prevent vein graft disease.

Pulmonary embolism affects more than 300,000 Americans each year, and carries a 3-month mortality rate of 15%. An IDG award figured significantly into Partners researcher Raúl San José Estépar’s plans to build an image analytic software platform that can predict recurrence in these patients by monitoring the vascular and cardiac remodeling that occurs in response to the initial injury.

“The IDG award has been able to consolidate our group’s efforts in the space of healthcare analytics, with a special interest in the prediction of hospital readmissions,” says San José Estépar, Ph.D., the project’s principal investigator and a research associate at BWH.

Even more exciting are the unexpected advances arising from the IDG award, notes San José Estépar. His group unveiled a novel strategy for detecting human organ structures in CT scans using technology similar to that used in face recognition software. “These structures can be used to identify clinical biomarkers like calcification and bone mineral density,” he says.

An IDG-funded project led by William “Jay” Austen, Jr., MD, Chief, Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery and Chief, Division of Burn Surgery at the MGH, aims to prevent dilation and failure of vein grafts constructed during heart surgery, surgery for peripheral vascular disease, and creation of arteriovenous (AV) fistulas for patients with renal failure.

The pressure of arterial blood flow can distort vein grafts, inducing changes that lead to stenosis and failure. Various strategies have been used to prevent this distortion.

“We thought we had a better way to do that,” Austen explains. His team treated the outside of vein grafts with a photoactive dye that reacted with light to induce collagen crosslinking. In rodent models, the strategy appeared to limit dilation of the blood vessel. But the team needed to demonstrate feasibility in large animals to move forward with the technology.

That’s where the IDG award came into play. Austen’s group used the funds to place grafts into the carotid arteries of pigs and demonstrate the potential value of their technology.

“This is a project that never would have happened if we didn’t have the IDG grant. The award was absolutely critical, because so many projects like ours don’t have an obvious pathway forward,” Austen says. “We had what we thought was a very interesting and important idea that would translate into helping patients, and yet it didn’t fit into typical funding pathways. This grant was extraordinarily important and allowed us to get through large animal studies, yielding very positive results.”

Austen and Patz are not alone in relying on the IDG program to bridge the funding gap. Masanori Aikawa, MD, PhD, the Yoshihiro Miwa Associate Chair and Director at the BWH Center for Interdisciplinary Cardiovascular Sciences, agrees that the IDG program plays a critical role in the quest to attract venture capital.

In recent years, Aikawa’s team discovered that a molecule involved in cell signaling may have therapeutic implications for atherosclerosis, type 2 diabetes, and fatty liver disease. Aikawa relied on his NIH funds to demonstrate that the molecule, known as Delta-like ligand 4 (Dll4), promotes the progression of vein graft lesions in mice.

But federal funds weren’t enough to back Aikawa’s efforts to develop new Dll4-targeted therapies. “Under the recent economic milieu, raising venture capital for such an early project was not an easy task,” he notes.

The IDG support accelerated the speed of Aikawa’s work. His team has already identified at least 20 candidate molecules and is currently characterizing them in preparation for further study in a pig model of vein grafts. Specifically, Aikawa wishes to test his new drugs in a pig model of vein grafts, which will help him raise capital.

“We still have a long way to go, but the award brought us a step closer to the clinical development of Dll4-targeted therapies for cardiometabolic disease,” Aikawa notes.

And with that step, the IDG program is off to a promising start.

The second round of the Innovation Discovery Grant program will be launched in January. Grant size is being increased to $100,000. More details will be available through the Innovation website: innovation.partners.org