Many academic researchers are tenacious, spending years in the lab studying the processes that lead to human diseases in hopes of developing treatments. But they often underestimate how difficult it is to translate their successful discovery into a drug that will be used in the clinic.
That’s why Daria Mochly-Rosen, PhD, founded SPARK, a hands-on training program that helps scientists move their discoveries from bench to bedside. SPARK depends on a unique partnership between university and industry experts and executives to provide the necessary education and mentorship to researchers in academia.
In recent years, Stanford’s program has sparked identical programs throughout the world; at TEDMED 2015, Mochly-Rosen described this globalization. I recently spoke with her about the SPARK Global program, which she co-directs with Kevin Grimes, MD, MBA.
How has SPARK inspired similar programs throughout the world?
We’ve found our solution for translational research to be particularly powerful. Of the 73 completed projects at Stanford, 60 percent entered clinical trials and/or were licensed by a company. That’s a very high accumulative success rate. So I think it has showed other groups that we have a formula that really works – a true partnership with academia and industry. It’s the combination of industry people coming every week to advise us and share lessons learned and our out-of-the-box, risk-taking academic ideas that makes SPARK so successful.
We feel that what we’ve learned is applicable to others. Kevin and I also feel very strongly that universities need to take responsibility to make sure inventions are benefitting patients. So we’re trying to do our part.
How do you and Dr. Grimes help develop the global programs?
When a university asks about our program, we invite them to come visit us for a couple of days so they can talk to SPARKees (SPARK participants), meet SPARK advisors and watch our weekly meeting. Sometimes they also ask Kevin and I to come to their country to help set up a big event or assist in other ways. If they begin a translational research program at their institution, we offer for them to be affiliated with SPARK Global. Everyone is invited.
There are now SPARK programs throughout the world, including the United States, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Australia, Germany and Brazil. We are also working with other countries, including Norway, Israel, Netherlands, Poland and Finland, to help them start a program.
Do researchers in other countries face the same challenges as those in the U.S. when developing new drugs?
There are many common challenges. And there are also some advantages and challenges that are different in other places. So it’s a mix, both within and outside the U.S.
There are several key components to the success of translation research. It’s important to have a good idea. It’s even more important to have good advisors from industry to help develop the idea. And it’s very important that the people involved are open-minded and not inhibited by hierarchical structures. In some places, there is a big problem with hierarchy – particularly in parts of Europe and East Asia. In some cultures, it’s also difficult to get experts to volunteer and academics can’t afford to pay multiple advisors. Also, some universities don’t have a good office of technology to help with patent licensing, which can be a major challenge.
You recently held the first International SPARK conference. Do you have future events planned?
The first international conference was held last summer in Taiwan. We only invited those with an existing SPARK program, because it was an organizational meeting. We spent a lot of time discussing what we want to do together.
The next SPARK Global meeting will be open to every university and will be held at Stanford this fall. There will be half a day for those thinking about starting a new SPARK program at their institution, and then one-and-a-half days for those already involved. We’ll celebrate SPARK’s 10-year anniversary and the formation of SPARK Global. Our overall agenda is to continue to promote SPARK-like programs in universities, as well as come up with ideas that the global network can work on together.
Jennifer Huber, PhD, is a science writer with extensive technical communications experience as an academic research scientist, freelance science journalist, and writing instructor.
Previously: SPARK program helps researchers cross the ‘valley of death” between drug discovery and development, An inside look at drug development, and At TEDMED 2015: Thinking about “breaking through” the valley of death in science
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