Taking risks on research industry won’t do

Wyss Institute aims to push promising technology ahead, lest it languish

By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / May 30, 2011

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As a graduate student at Harvard University, Omar Ali built a prototype of a cancer vaccine — a spongelike plastic implant that could train the body’s immune system to attack a tumor. The vaccine prevented mice from developing melanoma, and Ali was excited about the potential it could work in human cancer patients.

Ali continued working on the project as a post-doctoral researcher and got more exciting results, but saw no clear path to push his idea to the next step. So the bioengineer went to work at a start-up company, where he thought he would have a better chance of using his knowledge and skills to help people.

In January, however, Ali joined the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, attracted back to academia by its cross-disciplinary approach. The institute works to bridge the gap between promising basic research advances and the robotic technologies, drugs, novel building materials, or medical devices that change the world.

Ali is currently working with a Harvard bioengineering professor, David Mooney, and Dr. Glenn Dranoff of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to move toward a clinical trial of the technology in melanoma patients.

The novel cancer vaccine is a prime example of what the Wyss, a 2-year-old institute founded with a $125 million gift, is trying to do. Using engineering techniques that mimic nature, the institute is set up to push research beyond the typical endpoint in an academic lab — and to do the early-stage work that companies may be reluctant to undertake on a risky new technology.

To do that, the Wyss is bringing together people and ideas from many disciplines, backgrounds, and institutions at its main site in the midst of the bustling Longwood Medical Area in Boston and another site on Harvard’s Cambridge campus.

Of its 240 employees, nearly 30 are members of an “advanced technology team’’ with experience in industry. Collaborations also extend beyond Harvard’s borders, including researchers from the hospitals and academic institutions across the region.

Mike Super, a senior staff scientist, said he joined the Wyss because his experience at biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies had taught him that industry tends to be good at the later-stage development of a drug or product, but not the early-stage research.

Industry is “very risk-averse, so they’re looking to academia to come up with research,’’ Super said.

“We are trying to fill that gap; we’re taking things to prototyping, so we’re not just building it and writing a paper. We’re actually building it and testing it, getting real clinical samples and testing the device out.’’

Super, for example, is working on a technology that can rapidly test blood samples to identify pathogens that cause an infection. The work is based on research into natural proteins that bind to pathogens and help clear them from the body. But the technology being built at the Wyss takes that insight and turns it into a tool, engineering proteins and methods to pull pathogens from a blood sample and then determine if the infection is caused by a particular bacteria, fungus, or virus. The team is also working on identifying whether a pathogen is resistant to any antibiotics.

Dr. Donald Ingber, the founding director of the Wyss, said the idea is to develop meaningful prototypes that can effectively tackle real-world problems.

Last summer, his lab published a paper in the journal Science describing the development of a living, breathing lung on a chip, recreating a critical area of human lung tissue on a silicon rubber chip that could be used for drug screening or disease modeling. A decade ago, Ingber said, further progress would have depended mostly on serendipity — a chance meeting with an investor or interest from a company.

The Wyss, though, has pursued partnerships with pharmaceutical companies in the hopes of taking the technology a step further, guided by real-world needs. They also received a $3.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health and Food and Drug Administration to create an integrated lung and heart on a chip.

“We’re going to them and saying, is this interesting to you and why? What would make this interesting to you — what capabilities?’’ Ingber said.

“We’re not going to do product development, we’re going to do proof of principle, product prototypes — that type of derisking.’’

The Wyss is still young, so it is too early to know how effective its strategy will be, but the long-term hope is that fewer promising ideas will languish in the lab.

Dr. David Paydarfar, a professor of neurology and physiology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and an associate faculty at the Wyss, said that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, his lab found that breathing problems in newborn animals could be improved with stimulation, such as stroking the skin or creating vibration.

They were intrigued by the brain signals that might be in use and began to unravel the biological mechanism at work. Realizing that such breathing issues were a life-threatening problem for premature infants, they started to test whether creating tiny vibrations on mattresses — Paydarfar compares it to the feeling of driving on smooth pavement at 20 miles per hour — could help preemies.

A small study showed the vibrations improved the stability of their breathing and the oxygen levels in their bodies, while not interrupting their sleep.

At the Wyss, Paydarfar and collaborators are working to optimize the technology and to conduct clinical trials.

“We were really more interested in the science, initially — Gee, that’s interesting! What does it tell us about how the nervous system works?’’ Paydarfar said.

But, he added, the Wyss is also “very, very focused and skillful at taking ideas to prototypes to markets and then to manufacturers . . . how does that relate to life-threatening events? It is very gratifying.’’

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at