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Turning molecules into medicine with SPARK

As someone who had spent her career studying molecules on a computer screen, experiments involving people were a revelation and inspiration for Jane Tseng, PhD, director of the Drug Research Center of the College of Pharmacy at National Taiwan University.

As an article in the latest issue of Stanford Medicine magazine explains, Tseng got seriously involved in drug development at the encouragement of the vice president of her university, who had heard about a molecule she was studying that seemed to have potential as a drug for schizophrenia. This was not something she had been trained to do. The experience was eye opening.

As Tseng says in the article:

Basically I design a molecule using algorithms. We can do fast and robust drug discovery on the computer nowadays. But I was pretty much clueless about commercialization, like most university basic science researchers.

Here's what she saw when she and her team did their first study of the compound as a treatment for what are known as the negative symptoms of schizophrenia. At the start of the trial patients were withdrawn and uncommunicative. "They were like stones," said Tseng. When the trial concluded, many had become regular chatterboxes.

"We had patients' families chasing after us after we ended trial, asking how much they need to pay to continue the supply," Tseng said.

Seeing how discoveries about molecular interactions could transform people's lives drove Tseng to move out of her comfort zone and lead the effort to commercialize a drug. And as the Stanford Medicine magazine explains, she's doing that with the help of SPARK, a program founded in 2006 at Stanford that has given hundreds of academic researchers around the world the training and connections to turn lab discoveries into treatments. It gave Tseng hope her work could ultimately help patients in need.

SPARK's approach has spread around the world, with 57 programs based on the SPARK model now running. In the Stanford Medicine article, founder and co-director Daria Mochly-Rosen, PhD, describes what she believes is its appeal:

SPARK exemplifies how those of us in academia can go beyond what is expected — which is to teach and write papers. It’s a very simple and effective way to make sure that the research we publish eventually impacts patients. For us not to harness this potential and not bring it back to society is just irresponsible. This speaks to many of us, who really want to help patients. I think that’s why it caught fire.

Illustration by Mark Smith

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