University of Vermont

College of Medicine

Office of Medical Communications

Second Annual SPARK VT Initiative Supports UVM Researchers on the Path to Commercialization

UVM Professor of Neurological Sciences Diane Jaworski, Ph.D., presents her research to the SPARK VT Panel. She was one of four recipients of a $50,000 grant.
UVM Professor of Neurological Sciences Diane Jaworski, Ph.D., presents her research to the SPARK VT Panel. She was one of four recipients of a $50,000 grant. (Photo: Erin Post)

Four University of Vermont College of Medicine researchers have garnered seed grants to move their research one step closer to the marketplace thanks to SPARK VT, an initiative which began in the Department of Medicine and, in its second-year, has grown to include the Departments of Neurological Sciences and Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences. The goal is to provide valuable support and feedback to faculty as they continue to negotiate the tricky terrain between the lab and commercialization.

SPARK VT features a panel of leaders from biotech, pharmaceutical, business and legal fields who are invited to campus to listen to presentations from top biomedical researchers. Panel members ask questions, challenge presenters on the details of their plans, and ultimately offer suggestions for next steps. In this round, an 11-member panel chose Jason Bates, Ph.D., D.Sc.; Peter Bingham, M.D.; Diane Jaworski, Ph.D.; and Jeffrey Spees, Ph.D., as the recipients of the program’s $50,000 grants, which are funded by development funds from the grant recipient’s home department.

The goal, said Department of Medicine Chair Polly Parsons, M.D., at the start of the presentations, is to select proposals that have a “high potential to lead to products impacting human health.”

From easing the suffering of patients with malignant brain tumors to helping children with asthma manage their disease, the researchers not only showed the panel how their work will make a real impact on people, they provided information on where they are in the patenting process, as well as data to back up why investing in their research would be worthwhile.

Bates, who is a professor of medicine and recently finished a four-year term as interim director of the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, brought with him a prototype of a “disposable impedance adaptor” created by a team of four UVM senior engineering students with a 3-D printer. The device will measure – in real time – the lung function of patients who are in the hospital on mechanical ventilation, with a goal to help more accurately monitor and diagnose their condition. He said SPARK VT funding would support the development of a fully functioning prototype as well as the software to analyze the data.

Bingham, a professor in the departments of neurological science and pediatrics, presented his proposal with Christopher Hancock, Ph.D., a digital designer and technology developer. Their “breath-interactive mobile gaming software” incorporates a spirometer – a standard device used in pulmonary function tests – to allow children ages eight to 15 to use their breath to control screen events in the course of fun and colorful computer games. “Part of the problem for these children is being aware that they are symptomatic,” Bingham told the panel, pointing out that his game would give these children an opportunity to better understand their own breathing patterns. With asthma the third leading cause of emergency room visits, the gaming software not only stands to improve quality of life, but cut down on health care costs.

Jaworski, a professor of neurological sciences at UVM, presented her research on triacetin-based acetate and its potential as a novel chemotherapeutic adjuvant. During the course of her research on gliomas, a particularly deadly type of brain tumor, she found that glyceryl triacetate (GTA) – a common food additive – boosts the effectiveness of chemotherapy in mouse models. It does this by increasing the bioavailability of acetate, which is reduced in cancer cells. The dearth of acetate silences tumor suppressor genes, the ‘brakes’ that limit cell division. Since GTA passes through the blood-brain barrier, it is particularly useful for brain tumors, although Jaworski believes it holds promise for other types of cancer as well.   

“It’s safe and it’s cheap,” she told the panel, adding that the substance is already FDA-approved. SPARK VT funding would help her pursue a phase one clinical trial and commercial partners to move the idea into the marketplace.

Spees, a UVM associate professor of medicine, presented his research on "Cell-Kro," a grafting agent composed of insulin and a peptide derived from Connective Tissue Growth Factor. Cell-Kro has been shown in rodent models to improve the adhesion, proliferation, survival, and migration of cardiac stem cells grafted to a heart injured from a heart attack. When cardiac stem cells are injected sub-epicardially with Cell-Kro as a “backpack,” Spees told the panel he saw much-improved graft success. In general, the field of regenerative medicine has struggled to successfully graft cells from culture back to injured tissue. With additional research, including large animal studies and clinical trials, this may mean that patients who suffer a heart attack could use stem cell therapy to improve their cardiac function. Whereas hundreds of thousands of patients suffer heart attacks annually in the U.S., Spees also noted that he market for Cell-Kro is “rapidly expanding and global.”

This year the SPARK VT steering committee – which includes UVM Professor of Medicine Mercedes Rincon, Ph.D., Department of Medicine business manager Eric Gagnon, and UVM Assistant Professor of Pathology Mark Allegretta, Ph.D.’90, who is associate vice president for commercial research for the National M.S. Society – received nine proposals from researchers across the three departments. Five were chosen to present to the SPARK VT panel. A follow-up progress report presentation from the SPARK VT researchers is planned for the winter of 2015, and additional faculty workshops on entrepreneurship are in the works for the fall.

"I'm grateful for Eric and Mercedes dedication and enthusiasm and to the members of the consultant panel for their incredible generosity with their expertise and time," said Parsons.