The two award-winners are James L. McGrath, Ph.D., Assistant Professor with the Department of Biomedical Engineering, and Alan V. Smrcka, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Pharmacology and Physiology, of Oncology, and of Biochemistry and Biophysics. McGrath, along with Philippe Fauchet, Ph.D., Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has developed microscopic filters with the potential to one day bring about "revolutionary" improvements in renal dialysis machines that filter waste from the blood in place of failed kidneys. Smrcka has developed a new class of drug candidates that interact with G-proteins, molecular "switches" that control the flow of chemical messages through the body and that may represent a new way to treat heart failure, cancer and addiction.
The partnership comes at a time when most research institutions face increased funding challenges. While the University of Rochester Medical Center doubled its funding in the last seven years to $210 million, more than half came from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the lead federal agency for the support of medical research. Growth in NIH funding has slowed dramatically in recent years, and most academic research centers in response have sought alternative funding sources, including biotech and pharmaceutical companies. Industry, at the same time, has become more interested in partnering with academic research centers as an efficient source of new ideas.
"These awards are crucial because they drive forward truly worthwhile research projects that otherwise may have been frozen for years in funding limbo," said Howard J. Federoff, M.D., Ph.D., senior associate dean for basic science research at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. "In the current environment, there is great value in seeking out partnerships that increase the ability of universities to do research and of companies to deliver new treatments to patients."
The fund's review committee, consisting of members from the medical center and Johnson & Johnson, received 42 research concept proposals from medical center scientists as part of the first round. Applications were reviewed by the medical center's Office of Corporate Alliances (OCA), J&J and by 25 faculty members with expertise in relevant areas. Each paper was scored based on the whether the research described was truly new, had potential of significant impact on patients, had overall scientific merit and feasibility and on capability of the research team itself. Co-developed by OCA and Johnson & Johnson's Corporate Office of Science and Technology (COSAT), the fund is also focused on development of therapeutic areas and technology platforms of strategic interest to J&J for potential product development. To qualify, research projects had to have arrived at the stage where a carefully designed study could provide preliminary proof that the work can advance treatment or improve diagnosis.
Awards will consist of what is termed "no rights" grants, meaning that Johnson & Johnson will have no special rights to any discoveries or patents that arise from research supported by the agreement. All intellectual property rights to the discoveries will be retained by the medical center and its inventors. J&J will fund will the project on a renewable basis with proposals solicited twice a year. The next round of applications is to be collected in mid-March.