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SPARK VT to Continue with Second Round of Research Proposals

Markus Meyer, M.D., gives his presentation to the SPARK VT panel in the spring of 2013. The next round of SPARK VT presentations are slated for June 20.
Markus Meyer, M.D., gives his presentation to the SPARK VT panel in the spring of 2013. The next round of SPARK VT presentations are slated for June 20. (Photo credit: UVM Medical Photography)

Even when innovative research yields a broadly beneficial device or therapy, the “Valley of Death” looms large, Department of Medicine Chair Polly Parsons, M.D., recently told a crowd gathered in Davis Auditorium for Grand Rounds at Fletcher Allen Health Care. This “valley” is the space in between promising biomedical research and the market, and is defined by the challenge of translating novel research from bench to bedside.

In 2012, the Department of Medicine founded a new program called SPARK VT to help bridge that divide. Its premise is simple: Leaders from biotech, pharmaceutical, business and legal fields are invited to listen to presentations from top biomedical researchers in the Department of Medicine. Panel members ask questions, challenge presenters on the details of their plans and ultimately offer suggestions for next steps. All participants receive valuable feedback, but the winners receive a seed grant to lay the groundwork for future grant proposals.

“It flips research on its head a little bit,” Parsons says, noting that the panel offered practical advice as well as challenged presenters to home in on how their research was going to impact patients, and improve care.

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 (STTR) grants. Both programs ask small businesses to collaborate with research institutions to help commercialize potential new technologies.

For the first SPARK VT round held in May of 2013, a panel of nine leaders heard presentations on five pre-selected proposals. 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 that administers a small dose of nitrogen to a patient and times 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.

Meyer, Suratt, and Stapleton provided an update on their projects during the Grand Rounds presentation in March. Meyer said he’s done some follow-up studies on the heart function monitor, and has created a start-up company to support his venture. He has 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, including one to the Department of Defense, and are exploring possible industrial partners.

The Department of Medicine is gearing up for the second round of SPARKVT presentations, to be held on June 20. The same invited panel of experts will return to campus to learn about research from five to six faculty members. For this round, faculty from two additional departments were invited to submit proposals: Neurological Sciences and Obstetrics Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences.

To see a video series related to SPARK VT, visit the Faculty Development page on the College’s website.