Bridging the "Valley of Death"

Going mobile

Going mobile: Probe developed by Oncoscope with funding from the Coulter Foundation.
Courtesy Adam Wax

Adam Wax A.M. ’96, Ph.D. ’99, the Theodore Kennedy Associate Professor of biomedical engineering, had a brilliant idea that he believed could potentially diagnose cancer in its earliest stages, saving countless lives. The Duke bioengineer and one of his collaborators, gastroenterologist Nicholas Shaheen of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, had developed a fiberoptic “biophotonic” imaging probe that physicians could thread through an endoscope to detect the subtlest changes in cells from throat to colon that portend cancer.

Determined to bring their technology to market, they formed the start-up company Oncoscope Inc. But their promising invention almost fell into what entrepreneurs dub the “valley of death.”

“We weren’t getting substantial funding because we hadn’t done an in vivo trial,” he recalls. “It was a chicken-and-egg quandary. Without funding, we couldn’t do a trial, and without the trial, we weren’t getting any funding.”

But they were rescued by a $100,000 grant from the Coulter Foundation’s Duke-Coulter Translational Partnership. The grant funded a pilot study on thirty patients that yielded what Wax calls “fantastic results,” and their work has subsequently attracted millions of dollars in investment and research funding.

The Duke-Coulter Partnership bridges the valley of death in a way that federal funding would not, says biomedical engineering department chair George Truskey, who leads the program. “Before a company picks up a technology, they want to see a prototype that shows the idea is more than just an idea. But it’s not a process that the federal government would tend to fund, because the steps needed to get to that prototype are not necessarily considered cutting-edge research.”

The foundation also brings an entrepreneurial mindset, says biomedical engineer Barry Myers, M.D./Ph.D. ’91, M.B.A. ’05, the partnership’s co-leader and the director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke. “Faculty members are traditionally trained in design, in research, and in engineering principles. They really are not trained or experienced in the processes that bring products to market.” Besides bringing critical funding to the department, Myers adds, the partnership has “brought with it the infrastructure necessary to transform traditional hypothesis-driven research into a position where it can also be recognized as having value by industry and venture capital.”

Since its inception in 2005, the partnership has awarded a dozen grants and spawned three start-up companies, yielded twenty-one patents or patent applications, and attracted $7.7 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health.

In April, Duke and the foundation expanded the partnership, announcing a $20 million endowment—$10 million from the foundation and a matching $10 million from donors. The impact of the new funding will be more than just financial, Myers says.

The endowment “represents a watershed, because you’ll have students and faculty members pursuing translational processes, working with companies to make products and understand market forces,” he says. “Five or ten years from now, an entire generation of engineers trained in the Coulter translational process will be young leaders in biomedical engineering programs around the country. And biomedical engineering will be even more relevant to patient care and to society.”

–Dennis Meredith

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