Researcher Probes Science to Building a “Bio-Artificial” Heart

10/15/13Follow @angelashah

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we can do for dogs.

It’s exactly the same cardiomyopathy that people get. We’ve partnered with the veterinary school so we have vets who are interested and care very much about this. It’s something that I’ve actually worked with some vets on in the past. There is such an unmet need. People want to keep their pets healthy. We have learned a lot from animal models and it’s nice to be able to apply that to help them.

X: What are your near-term goals?

DT: At the Cell and Organ Biotechnology Center, our goals are to build a heart. Another goal is to identify the people who are at risk for heart disease and develop new methodologies, blood-based tests to tell who’s at risk for a heart attack, to help prevent the onset of heart disease by using cell therapy. We’re validating some diagnostics testing that’s going to be very interesting in the next year to 18 months. I think you’ll see some new blood-based tests that will help us predict who can get better from heart disease, and who can’t, and how we can treat those who have these diseases.

X: What is your biggest obstacle at the moment?

DT: Time is always your biggest obstacle. It keeps going day by day and you can’t rush some treatments. You have to see if they’re going to work for the long term. You can’t make time go faster than it goes. We’re confident that bringing together partners in a number of different disciplines here in the medical center means that we’re well poised to determine the best cells to build different types of therapies. But the stem cell field is not at a place where we can easily get hundreds of billions of beating heart cells that we need to build a whole heart. So creating that capacity something to really focus on.

On the commercialization front, funding for science is at the lowest it’s been in my lifetime in the United States. On the one hand, there is still money from the [National Institutes of Health.] On the other hand, there are large numbers of people who are competing for that money. We’re losing a generation of students, fellows and scientists who don’t understand how to compete in this environment or who don’t want to have to compete in an environment where one in 15 grants is funded. And yet you’re expected to have one or two grants at any given time to support your work. That’s writing 20 grants a year. It’s almost impossible. It’s a difficult environment these days.

There are a huge number of people with ideas, who have IP in those ideas, but don’t have the small amount of money that you need … to take a technology and spin off companies. I’ve talked some with leaders in the medical center, including our new president, and he certainly gets it. We need to have pipelines for ideas to move. I don’t see that happening very rapidly, if at all. If I wanted to start a company tomorrow, if I had the perfect idea and I had intellectual property on that idea, to start a medical device company or biologics company, you need some degree of resources to start that company in this environment where jobs are less secure. People are paying student loans. We’re losing more and more ideas.

X: What is your interaction with the commercialization possibilities of this research?

DT: We’re bringing branches of companies that do cell therapies here. There’s a market here, patients here. I’ve started multiple companies in the past. Yes, we’re close to the science but we also understand that the ultimate goal is a clinical product, a commercial product. We’ve been charged with spinning out multiple companies over the next five years and you’ll see we’re on track to do that. One of those companies is coming on board in the next year. We’ve begun some conversations about the best, first spinoffs. There are a couple of opportunities in the veterinary market and there are also some possibilities in the diagnostic field, where we’ll spin out companies or license out technologies.

Angela Shah is the editor of Xconomy Texas. She can be reached at ashah@xconomy.com or (214) 793-5763. Follow @angelashah

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