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Biotech firms, Hub hospitals strengthen ties

By Robert Weisman
Globe Staff / December 24, 2009

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Two Boston teaching hospitals are stepping up research into cardiovascular disease in separate programs that illustrate the deepening collaboration between academic medical centers and the biopharmaceutical industry.

Tufts Medical Center has received a $1.7 million federal stimulus award from the National Institutes of Health, one of Tufts’ largest grants of the year, to explore cell-penetrating peptide treatments for heart disease, using a technology licensed to Ascent Therapeutics of Cambridge. The project will employ a half-dozen researchers at Tufts’ labs in Chinatown and at outside partners and contractors.

Brigham and Women’s Hospital, meanwhile, will open the Center for Interdisciplinary Cardiovascular Sciences in a partnership with Japanese drug maker Kowa Company Ltd. to conduct basic research into the genesis of diseases such as atherosclerosis and diabetes. The Kowa-funded center, which will be the largest of the Boston hospital’s global pharmaceutical collaborations, will employ about 12 researchers in the Longwood Medical Area.

“This is a perfect example of an industry and academic medical relationship working together toward a goal of speeding the development of new treatments,’’ said Masanori Aikawa, assistant professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s and Harvard Medical School, who will direct the center. Research projects are set to begin next month at the center, located on the 17th floor of the Center for Life Sciences, 3 Blackfan St.

The programs are part of an effort by state life sciences researchers and the Patrick administration to strengthen alliances between hospitals and biopharmaceutical companies, said Susan R. Windham-Bannister, chief executive of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center in Waltham, which has spent $3.7 million this year on cooperative research grants funding six other collaborations.

“Massachusetts is the global leader in taking promising technologies and translating them into advance stages of development,’’ Windham-Bannister said, noting that the state is the top per-capita recipient of NIH research grants. “The academic medical centers are playing a critical role in developing young technologies. It is no longer cost-effective for companies to do all the research internally.’’

Athan Kuliopulos, principal investigator for the new NIH grant at Tufts, is an assistant professor of medicine and biochemistry and director of the school’s Hemostasis and Thrombosis Laboratory. In 2007, he and Tufts colleague Lidija Covic cofounded Ascent, which licensed from Tufts technology on which Kuliopulos and Covic had been working for the past decade. The technology involves a class of molecules known as Pepducins, which can treat acute cardiovascular stress and inhibit blood-clotting arterial thrombosis.

The NIH grant will help Tufts and Ascent validate the technology and advance research into injectable drugs that inhibit cells from sticking together and blocking blood flow.

“This has a huge significance for us,’’ Kuliopulos said. “This is, hopefully, going to help jump-start our research into the clinic. Arterial thrombosis is the leading cause of death in Americans, and these antiplatelet agents are key to preventing this.’’

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.