The pathway to a faculty position at a university can be long and circuitous. For Abigail Pulsipher, a research assistant professor in the Otolaryngology and Molecular Pharmaceutics departments, that journey took her from a postdoc in California to working at a University of Utah spinout company—GlycoMira—before landing her current position at the U.

Pulsipher has taken the lessons she learned from industry and applied them to her lab and research at the U. “We base our projects and our hypotheses on sound basic science,” she said. “But then we are also thinking way ahead down the road and kind of engineering backwards because we're thinking from the ‘bedside back to bench back to bedside’ approach.”

This approach has already proven successful for Pulsipher. Since starting as an assistant professor in October 2022, Pulsipher has received a Research Incentive Seed Grant from the Vice President for Research and School of Medicine at the University of Utah, was named a University of Utah Clinical and Translational Science Institute K12 Scholar, and most recently received Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant award from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

With the STTR grant, Pulsipher and her team are developing a new point-of-care test to diagnose a specific subset of patients with chronic sinus disease: eosinophilic chronic rhinosinusitis. “It’s truly a quality-of-life burdensome disease. Patients can have congestion, facial pain, and pressure. It affects their sleep and productivity,” Pulsipher said. These symptoms can last for 12 or more weeks.

Current methods to identify these patients and monitor disease fluctuations in response to treatment are limited. “This technology helps chip away at that problem by coming up with what we hope is a simple solution based on a nasal swab and a diagnostic point-of-care readout,” Pulsipher added. With this technology, Pulsipher and her team aim to improve the efficiency and value of and accessibility to personalized care.

The STTR grant is just one positive outcome of Pulsipher’s journey from academia to industry and back again. Directly, the grant represents the continued collaboration between GlycoMira and the U. Indirectly, the grant is a result of the relationships and experiences Pulsipher developed throughout her career and can be traced back to her postdoc days.

As a postdoc at California Institute of Technology, Pulsipher said she “fell in love” with glycosaminoglycans—essentially long chains of sugar molecules found in the body—and their relationship with health and disease.

We're in this to basically make our lives and the lives of our families and loved ones better through our technologies, research ideas and understanding of how the body works and responds to certain cues in health and disease.

Serendipitously, a former postdoc colleague attended a lecture by Glenn Prestwich, a U professor and serial entrepreneur, who just so happened to have a startup in Utah working with glycosaminoglycans. The colleague introduced Prestwich and Pulsipher, resulting in an interview and eventually a new job.

“It was a really good fit for me at the time in my life and also with my knowledge base and interest in what I was doing. Everything was really well aligned,” Pulsipher said. “It was also an opportunity to be involved on the ground floor of a startup company, which actually has a lot of similarities to an academic lab.”

The team at GlycoMira was working to take an idea and develop it into something impactful by validating and testing the technology using solid, rigorous science, just like academic researchers. Being located in the U’s Research Park, the clinicians at the U became critical partners to understanding the patient population and how to ultimately translate GlycoMira’s technology into a real, clinical product.

As Pulsipher worked more and more closely with U faculty across campus, she started to straddle that line between industry and academia before she eventually returned to academia with the GlycoMira and industry relationships in hand.

“At the University of Utah, I feel like there's less stigma in academia to think about translation and commercialization and reach across the aisle to industry partners, or even think about spinning out a company from your lab,” she said. “We're in this to basically make our lives and the lives of our families and loved ones better through our technologies, research ideas and understanding of how the body works and responds to certain cues in health and disease. Basically, it's OK to think about the end goal of commercializing something that comes out of your lab.”

Pulsipher is already using her experiences to help the next generation of scientists more readily grasp the idea of entrepreneurship in academia. She’s teaching a journal club class for molecular pharmaceutics graduate students focused on entrepreneurship for scientists. “I'm trying to incorporate all of these kinds of elements and show them that if you have a groundbreaking idea, it's OK to think about how you can translate that to the clinic. You don’t need to just stop at that Nature, Cell, or Science paper.”

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