This article is part of a series focused on highlighting student engagement in research at Case Western Reserve University. Carson Smith is a PhD student in the Department of Pathology who is passionate about research, science communication, and the intersections between them.
When the first targeted cancer treatment hit the market, it quickly improved countless lives and inspired an entirely new class of drugs. But the development of the drug has been a long time coming – 42 years, to be exact.
That’s how long it took from when University of Philadelphia researchers discovered a mutation known as the Philadelphia chromosome in 1959 to when the FDA finally approved imatinib, the drug designed to target it. Federal grants and programs now exist to help expedite drug approvals, but, unfortunately, biomedical research still lags behind clinical needs.
At Case Western Reserve University, that’s where the Translational Fellows Program (TFP) comes in. Offered by the School of Medicine’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the program provides young researchers interested in entrepreneurship with unique training and support designed to shorten the time to market for innovative technology that they develop.
The third class of TFP participants recently started the program, consisting of nine candidates who are researchers and innovators in oncology, biomedical engineering, emergency medicine, neurology, obesity and diabetes. Although they vary in the positions they hold at CWRU – some being research associates, postdoctoral researchers or senior doctoral students – all are united by their interest and commitment to commercializing their products where they can have an impact. directly in the lives of patients.
How the program works
In the TFP, interns connect with Ohio-based resources and opportunities as they spend a fellowship year being mentored by local experts and entrepreneurs through the CWRU Venture Mentorship Program. For alumni such as Yehe Liu (2020-2021), these resources have been essential in guiding the path forward as an entrepreneur.
Liu, co-founder of startup OpsiClear, was encouraged by then-TFP director Cheryl Thompson to pursue a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant, a type of federal grant designed to help biotech companies develop products for marketing. . He won the fellowship, which now funds his efforts to explore the commercialization potential of optical imaging technology in clinical imaging. But without Thompson’s guidance, Liu says he wouldn’t even have known how to apply.
In addition to mentorship, TFP fellows also have access to innovative programs that help them conduct primary market research, finding where their technology could be best exploited among existing treatments and helping to guide additional research questions by laboratory. Current colleague Jeeda Ismail cited one such program, I-Corps@NCATS, as one of her main reasons for applying to TFP – a view shared by many of her peers. For Lauren Yeh (2021-2022), the I-Corps@NCATS, an interview-based market assessment tool, was hugely influential in shaping her business plans and market reach to advance new pulmonary therapeutic treatments.
Importantly, the TFP pays 20% of fellows’ stipends or salaries, helping them spend time away from the lab and grow professionally and commercially with less financial worry.
“A lot of people ask us what our expectations are for what students get out of the program,” explained Tessianna Misko, director of career and professional development at the Office of Higher Education. “Our measure of success is that they get something out of it and grow in this program. It’s about our people.
By Misko’s metric, the program is a resounding success. Since their participation in TFP, several fellows have launched start-up companies, including Jessica Scarborough (2020-2021), whose company, CisSig, has just received a SPARK grant from the Cleveland Clinic to advance the clinical validation of a bladder cancer diagnostic tool.
Other fellows, including Liu and Yeh, cited the mentorship and networking provided by TFP as essential to helping them move their projects forward. Yeh said that while his lab has yet to create a company or end product, his time at TFP was instrumental in helping identify the types of experimental questions they needed to ask to create such a product. She is currently continuing her entrepreneurial education by doing an internship at Wave Strategy, a local company that focuses on early-stage technology development.
Other former fellows are now completing their medical studies, adding clinical medicine to their training in entrepreneurship and scientific research. One such fellow, Adam Lauko, said he plans to use his experience at TFP in an academic setting to help direct his future lab’s projects toward translational questions.
There is still a long road from the research lab to the clinical bedside, but the TFP is working to prepare CWRU trainees to undertake this journey. By building networks and providing training, fellows can become scientists interested in extending their research to the clinical space. This unique opportunity to combine entrepreneurship with research is just one of the ways CWRU prepares its interns to succeed, no matter where they want to go.
Interested in becoming a 2023-24 Translational Fellow? See the eligibility criteria on the Translational Fellows Program website.
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