by David Glenn
Here are some things that David Sullivan knows how to do: He knows how to manage a modestly sized biological lab. He knows how to chemically test for proteins and other molecular markers of Plasmodium, the parasite that causes malaria. He knows how to build simple prototypes of diagnostic devices that can detect Plasmodium proteins in urine—a potentially enormous breakthrough because such devices could eliminate the expense and risk of malarial blood screenings. Those are the kinds of tasks to which Sullivan, MD, an associate professor in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, has given the last 20 years of his life.
But here are a few things that Sullivan doesn’t know how to do: He doesn’t know how to organize and finance large-scale trials of his malaria diagnostics. He doesn’t know how to secure international patent protection for the devices. And he has no idea how to find factories that might manufacture them on a mass basis.
To fill in those gaps—and to increase the odds that his lab’s ingenuity will actually benefit people on the ground—Sullivan turned to the Johns Hopkins Technology Transfer Office.
In 2008, that office licensed Sullivan’s invention to Fyodor Biotechnologies, a small Baltimore company led by a former researcher from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. If all goes according to plan, Fyodor will conduct field trials of the urine diagnostic in Mali this spring. Hopes are running high, because an effective replacement for blood-based tests could have profound benefits in combating the disease that kills nearly 700,000 people annually. “We’ve been using a more than 100-year-old test, jabbing someone with a needle,” Sullivan says. “Our idea is to make malaria diagnostics more accessible to people in the home, almost like a pregnancy test. This may enable faster treatment and faster contact with health care personnel.”
Sullivan’s project is just one of several tech transfer ventures that have emerged from the Bloomberg School in recent years. Those efforts don’t always come easily or naturally to public health scholars. “The culture here has historically not been geared toward tech transfer,” says Shyam Biswal, PhD, a professor in Environmental Health Sciences and one of the founders of Cureveda, a biotech venture that aims to create new therapies for inflammatory diseases. When you’re working on problems that afflict people in severe poverty, revenue streams are probably the last thing on your mind. For their part, tech transfer offices haven’t always known what to do with public health ideas that might not have a market in the U.S. Slowly but surely, however, both parties are learning how to make this marriage work. In certain circumstances, they have realized, the market might be the only way to ensure that a promising public health tool moves from the lab into the real world.
“The tech transfer process can be frustrating because so many good ideas die on the vine,” Sullivan says. He is grateful that Hopkins’ tech transfer staff brokered his lab’s relationship with Fyodor. If the Mali trials go well, the company hopes to have the malaria diagnostics certified by the WHO, opening the door to potential large-scale purchases by The Global Fund.
“In this day and age, if you just publish an idea, it probably won’t get done,” says Wesley D. Blakeslee, director of the Johns Hopkins Office of Technology Transfer. “I think there’s more of a recognition now that biotech companies can be partners with us. If you invent a cure for cancer and it only stays in the lab, doesn’t get out the door, then you haven’t had the impact.”
Alain Labrique shows off a trove of low-cost technological treasures that support research from Kenya to Bangladesh.
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