University of Vermont

Research at The University of Vermont

SPARK Program Helps Move Biomedical Research Concepts to Clinical Care


A new initiative from the Department of Medicine at the UVM College of Medicine is helping to bridge the divide between biomedical research and the market by bringing promising researchers together with business innovators and biotech leaders. Called SPARK VT, the goal of the program is to address the challenge of translating novel research from bench to bedside.

Based on a program developed at Stanford University, the department launched SPARK VT as a pilot in late 2012. Under the direction of Department of Medicine Chair Polly Parsons, M.D., the program's organizing committee — which included Professor of Medicine Mercedes Rincon, Ph.D.; department business manager Eric Gagnon, and Mark Allegretta, Ph.D., president and chief scientific officer of BioMosaics — put out a call to its faculty members and researchers for proposals aimed at translating novel ideas into therapies, diagnostics, or devices that could "advance rapidly into clinical care through commercialization or other pathways." This left a wide berth for any number of ideas — from therapeutic devices and medical applications available on smart phones to new chemical compounds or pharmaceuticals.

For the first SPARK VT round held in May of 2013, a panel of nine leaders from biotech, pharmaceutical, business, and legal fields heard presentations on five pre-selected proposals. The panel offered practical advice and challenged presenters to hone in on how their research was going to impact patients and improve care. Two projects — one presented by Markus Meyer, M.D., and the other by the team of Renee Stapleton, M.D., Ph.D., and Benjamin Suratt, M.D.— each received a $50,000 seed grant to help move their research from bench to bedside. Meyer is developing a fast and inexpensive way to test for heart function: A simple device to administer a small dose of nitrogen to a patient and time its flow through the body. Stapleton and Suratt are researching leptin — a protein hormone — as a therapy for Systematic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (SIRS). This syndrome includes sepsis and shock, and may result from trauma or infection.

One goal was for participants to apply for two National Institutes of Health grant opportunities that have seen an increase in funding at a time when many programs are being cut: the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and the Small Business Technology Transfer (SBTT) grants. Both programs ask small businesses to collaborate with research institutions to help commercialize potential new technologies.

SPARK VT funding allowed both projects to move to the next phase of study. Meyer completed follow-up studies on the heart function monitor, and created a startup company to support his venture. He also submitted an SBIR grant. Suratt and Stapleton have completed additional studies and submitted a patent application with help from UVM's Office of Technology Commercialization. They've also submitted several grant proposals, and are exploring possible industrial partners.

The Department of Medicine will hold a second round of SPARK VT presentations in June 2014, with the same invited panel of experts returning to learn about research from faculty members who submitted proposals. For this round, faculty from two additional departments were invited to submit proposals: Neurological Sciences and Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences.


Last modified May 15 2014 03:32 PM