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Making the Leap

The inaugural recipients of the Louis B. Thalheimer Fund for Translational Research are a big step closer to bringing their medical innovations to market
Posted June 8, 2016
LifeSprout's team (l-r) Hai-Quan Mao, Justin Sacks, Sashank Reddy LifeSprout's team (l-r) Hai-Quan Mao, Justin Sacks, Sashank Reddy

People dealing with the challenges of chemotherapy, tissue replacement surgery, and hospital readmission may soon stand a better chance of achieving success, thanks to Johns Hopkins entrepreneurs and the seed funding helping them move their technology development forward.

Three teams of faculty, clinicians and researchers from across Johns Hopkins received the first grants provided by the Louis B. Thalheimer Fund for Translational Research, administered through Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures. One, a group of researchers led by a professor of neurology and neuroscience, is developing a compound that reduces nerve pain associated with chemotherapy. A second, a start-up called LifeSprout, is creating a human tissue replacement that facilitates natural tissue regrowth in surgeries for burns, trauma, and disease. A third, led by an internal medicine resident, has designed an app that helps patients navigate the hospital discharge process and comply with care regimens.

In each case, the Thalheimer Fund is providing support that helps the teams make the leap from the lab to commercialization, navigating what is known as the "valley of death" in translational seed funding. The fund, established in 2015 by a $5.4 million gift from Baltimore businessman, philanthropist, and Hopkins Medicine Trustee, Louis B. Thalheimer, provides funding to select Hopkins innovators with potentially marketable inventions to kickstart early-stage development. These resources help them produce the proof of concept, prototype, and other commercial feasibility studies necessary to bring their innovations out of the lab to benefit people all over the world.

Challenges of Commercialization

"We have a million great ideas at Hopkins, but there are ideas dying on the vine because of the lack of early, local investment," says Myron "Mike" Weisfeldt, MD, Med '65, A&S '62, who serves as an informal advisor to LifeSprout. Weisfeldt, a university distinguished service professor, former physician-in-chief of Johns Hopkins Hospital, and former director of the Department of Medicine, has devoted much of his career to improving health through technology — so he understands firsthand the kinds of financial challenges Hopkins innovators face.

Traditional government funding, such as National Institutes of Health grants, can help seed discoveries in basic science but cannot be used for commercial product development. On the other end, venture investors and corporations hesitate to invest significantly in unproven technologies and discoveries until early studies indicate the commercial viability of their product. The proof-of-concept process is critical, and funding is scarce, so the Thalheimer Fund provides this necessary bridge for these inventions.

"We were at a dead end in terms of being able to move ethoxyquin to a clinical track before the Thalheimer Grant came through," says neurology and neuroscience Professor Ahmet Hoke of the compound, which combats neuropathy in cancer patients. With the funding, his research will now take critical next steps toward FDA approval.

Benefits at Multiple Levels

The inaugural Thalheimer-funded Hopkins innovations will have a direct impact on physicians and patient health, but their indirect benefits have the potential to reach much wider audiences, such as reducing overall health care costs through reduced hospital readmissions. That’s why Johns Hopkins Bayview internal medicine resident Francoise Marvel devised the Health-E App, which can be integrated throughout the treatment process to help patients better manage their care after discharge, increasing the potential for healthy outcomes while reducing the likelihood of readmission.

"Initial modeling by my team found that if you keep 1,000 patients from being readmitted within 30 days, you’re looking at about a half-million in potential savings," Marvel says. "Scale that up, and the savings are huge."

Yet, without support from the Thalheimer Fund, Marvel’s idea for the Health-E App would have remained just that — a promising idea. 

"Too many game-changing Hopkins innovations, like the first three Thalheimer Fund recipients, find it challenging to move forward in development because of a lack of funding," says Christy Wyskiel, who heads JHTV and serves as a senior advisor to President Ron Daniels. "Through his generosity, Louis Thalheimer has increased the odds that our most promising technologies have a chance to make it out of the lab and into the market, ultimately impacting society for the better."

Get to know more about each Thalheimer-funded project — LifeSprout, the Health-E App, and ethoxyquin — and the teams behind them by clicking the links below.

LifeSprout: Can we manufacture synthetic human tissue that can regrow the real thing?

The Health-E App: Can an app help reduce the number of hospital readmissions?

Ethoxyquin: Can chemotherapy-induced nerve damage be prevented without diluting the drug's cancer-killing abilities?