When Alexander Ploss’ team discovered a compound that blocks the cancer-causing hepatitis B virus in lab experiments, the Princeton associate professor of molecular biology immediately grasped the potential benefit for society. He also knew that laboratory findings typically require additional research before they are ready for testing in patients.
For assistance, Ploss turned to the Science Center, a Philadelphia-based organization that aims to help translate promising discoveries into valuable products and services while developing the regional workforce and catalyzing economic growth.
Each year, the Science Center’s QED Program provides mentorship and funding to academic researchers to support development of early-stage life science and healthcare discoveries through entrepreneurial ventures. In 2020, Princeton joined 21 other universities across Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey as a QED program partner, a status that allows University researchers to participate in the program.
“Our participation the Science Center QED program adds to the realm of opportunities that we offer to encourage further development of the potentially life-changing discoveries made at Princeton,” said Vice Dean for Innovation Rodney Priestley, the Pomeroy and Betty Perry Smith Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering. “This is an exciting opportunity to propel forward solutions to societal challenges.”
Last spring, Ploss became the first Princeton researcher to apply, and in June he received news that his proposal was one of the 12 projects selected from dozens of entries to participate in the program.
Ploss and his team study chronic hepatitis B virus infection, which has no cure and can cause liver disease and liver cancer. More than 250 million people worldwide are infected with the virus, and nearly a quarter of those will die from chronic liver disease or liver cancer.
The researchers developed a method for rapidly identifying small molecules that have the potential to cure hepatitis B viral infections. The group, which receives funding from the New Jersey Health Founding, used the platform to identify several compounds that block a crucial step in the virus’ replication.
But additional experiments and animal testing are required before the compound can be given to patients. Most Princeton researchers focus on making new discoveries rather than developing existing ones, so this research and development is best done by an outside venture such as a startup biopharmaceutical company.
“Drug development involves a number of aspects that academic researchers may not be familiar with, such as regulatory affairs,” Ploss said. “You definitely get pushed a little bit out of your comfort zone, which is why it is important to access additional expertise.”
QED pairs researchers with business advisors from industry and the entrepreneurial community to create a plan for developing the technology. Over a period of six months, Ploss’ team worked on questions such as which experiments need to be done to prove the discovery is safe and effective, how many people are likely to benefit, and what funding sources are available for the necessary experiments in mice and clinical trials in humans.
Ploss’ team consisted of a pharmaceutical executive with extensive experience in regulatory affairs and a life-sciences venture capital investor and consultant. The team also included a graduate student from the University of Pennsylvania who is interning in entrepreneurship. The team also included Lei Wei, a postdoctoral researcher in Ploss’ lab; Hahn Kim, the director of Princeton’s Small Molecule Screening Center; and Tony Williams, new ventures associate in Princeton’s Office of Technology Licensing.
“The QED program provides structure and forces the researchers to think through the business case for their technology,” said Williams, who frequently advises Princeton faculty on the process of transitioning discoveries into new ventures such as startup companies.
In December 2020, Ploss and the other competitors pitched their projects to a panel of seasoned entrepreneurs. The panel evaluated the projects and selected three awardees to receive $100,000 each in research funding, which the participating universities must match.
Although the Princeton team was not one of the three awardees, Ploss said that the experience has been highly valuable. “When you work in the field of infectious diseases,” said Ploss, who also conducts COVID-19-related research, “you of course want to see your research benefit patients.”
Princeton faculty members who are interested in applying for the QED program should contact Tony Williams, in the Office of Technology Licensing.