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Bridging the Gap for Promising New Drugs

Read Time: 4 minutes

David Bearss, PhD

In October 2020, a new initiative started to drive the process of bringing lifesaving medical drug discoveries made in University of Utah (U of U) laboratories to patients. Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI), the College of Pharmacy, and the Partners for Innovation, Ventures, Outreach and Technology (PIVOT) Center established the U of U Therapeutic Accelerator Hub (U2TAH or the Accelerator). The Accelerator provides resources and expertise to researchers, supporting the process of translating new discoveries into clinical applications.

“We have made a bunch of compounds with one project and have a technology in development. We are trying to give investigators better tools so they can ask more therapeutic questions in their labs,” says David Bearss, PhD, Senior Managing Director of The Accelerator.

Cancer researcher working in lab

The Accelerator’s goal is eliminating hurdles that hinder the process of translating discoveries into new drugs. Federal government and private industry research often support lab and clinical research that tests whether new medicines effectively treat patients. However, between the discovery research and clinical research phases, a process called preclinical development must occur, wherein drug candidates are refined and tested for safety. Relatively little funding exists to support the challenging process of preclinical development, so at many universities, promising new drug candidates languish. The Accelerator provides vital preclinical development expertise to help bridge the gap between lab discoveries and clinical research.

“This whole project comes down to the idea of reaching patients who need innovative therapies in a more efficient manner. It is what drives us. We want to see all the great work being done at the University of Utah reach more people. We want to know that something discovered here benefits a person. To be involved in that process is amazing. Every time I was involved with a project that got into clinical trials and eventually benefited even a single person, well, there is nothing more satisfying.”

"We want to see all the great work being done at the University of Utah reach more people. We want to know that something discovered here benefits a person. To be involved in that process is amazing."
David Bearss, PhD

The Accelerator was seeded with a commitment to invest $22.5 million from HCI and the College of Pharmacy. The Accelerator links University of Utah scientists with key internal and external resources and expertise in order to assist the process of bringing new lifesaving drugs to patients. The PIVOT Center manages the process of bringing new discoveries to market through partnerships, licensing, start-up companies, and other strategic efforts. Although cancer treatments are of great interest to the Accelerator, all disease areas are eligible for support.

“The Accelerator provides a team. We go to the investigators and collaborate with them. We are here to provide the expertise, project management and funding to move this process along.”

An industry veteran, Bearss knows how important one discovery can be. During his career, he has managed research teams to bring 16 new drugs to clinical-stage testing, several of which went on to become approved drugs.

“Any success means big things for the future of the university. We have an opportunity to make an impact on patients. We hope this becomes a virtuous cycle where we have success and then can invest it back into the program and create more success, and so on.”

Despite starting this program during the middle of a global pandemic, Bearss has been pleased with the group’s progress and sees a silver lining with the utilization of new technology.

“Our funding goes directly to the investigators and the research, not to a physical building. We now have technology that allows us to meet with over 200 investigators, all in a virtual space. The pandemic has pushed the adoption of this technology, creating an environment where it is much easier to collaborate. Just a year ago, the technology was clunky and everyone was averse to it, and now, everyone knows how to get on a Zoom. We can throw data on a screen and no one has to leave their home. It has changed everything for the better in terms of collaboration. It is so promising for the future.”

Cancer touches all of us.