Some University of Utah departments have entrepreneurship built into their identity. While some are obvious like many business school departments, others might surprise you. For example, Darrell Davis, chair and professor of medicinal chemistry, said the department is as an example of an entrepreneurial, science forward department.
“That interaction with the tech transfer office and the commercialization of discoveries are really part of the culture of the department,” Davis said. This relationship has resulted in multiple successful startups and technology coming from the department. Now Davis is working on a new technology that has the potential to be one of the next success stories from his department.
Successful technologies take time to develop. Davis started researching a new therapeutic for hepatitis C, an RNA virus, about 15 years ago after a biotech company reached out to his lab for help. The company had discovered some compounds that blocked the virus, but they couldn’t figure out how they worked. So, Davis and a Ph.D. student started studying the compounds and how they interacted with the viral RNA.
“The more we studied it, the more we came to understand that the activity against hepatitis C was much broader, and that the activity worked against many RNA viruses,” Davis said. Davis disclosed the discovery in 2018 to the Technology Licensing Office, while he and his lab continued to test the discovery on more viruses, including the Zika and COVID-19 viruses.
“One of the things that's interesting to us about this research project is that it doesn't work against any particular virus but works against systems that a lot of viruses use,” Davis said. “The idea is that if we can really develop this into a therapeutic, we're going to be prepared for the next thing. When the next thing happens, we'll have a drug that works.”
The idea is that if we can really develop this into a therapeutic, we're going to be prepared for the next thing. When the next thing happens, we'll have a drug that works.
Even though Davis and his lab had a compound that seemed to work and would make a good therapeutic, they needed help with further development and testing to successfully move the discovery out of the lab. However, the lab wasn’t set up to do the type of testing necessary to validate the compound’s potential.
Davis pointed out that a big barrier to creating a successful therapeutic out of a university lab is the lack of access to resources a large, established company would typically be able to access, including funds, additional researchers and more.
“We're very interested in legitimately developing drugs or a real therapeutic, and that's a hard thing to do in an academic environment,” Davis said. “We don't have $100 million, and we don't have 100 PhDs I can put on this project. So, we have to sort of do things a little bit more slowly and hopefully a little bit more strategically.”
After disclosing his discovery, TLO connected Davis to the University of Utah Therapeutics Accelerator in 2019, and his project was accepted into the accelerator, meaning he would have access to more resources.
The accelerator has bridged the gap between the work done Davis is able to do in his academic lab at the U and the testing that companies need to see before licensing the technology and developing it into a drug available to patients. For Davis, he needed access to animal studies. “I’m a biochemist, so I don’t have animals in my lab,” he said. “My lab has made molecules to be tested, but then the testing has all been done through an outside company the accelerator lined up for us.”
The accelerator and Davis hope that the additional testing and validation will make the drug not only more appealing to potential licensees but also more valuable.
“A lot of times in academics, people are not able to really develop their discovery very far, so if they do license it, then they have to license it very cheaply because there’s a lot of risk involved,” Davis said. By enabling additional studies, the Therapeutics Accelerator helps derisk the technology, making it more valuable. “For the inventors and for the university, that's a very useful thing, because then the licensing could potentially bring in real money.”
Alex Stark, the accelerator’s senior manager of research, said working with Davis has been a delight. “His approach to research is marked by thoughtfulness and a constant drive to explore innovative ideas, propelling his drug development research forward with remarkable speed,” Stark said. “His unwavering passion for the field not only fuels his endeavors but also inspires those around him.”
Davis advised his peers to trust the process even if you are unaccustomed to the world of commercialization. “As an academic, you're sort of inherently protective of your discoveries,” Davis said. “My biggest advice is you have to trust the process. If your idea is going to get developed, you have to let the Technology Licensing Office do what they're good at and what they have the staff for.”