LSU: Innovation put to the forefront

A team of LSU scientists thinks it is on its way to developing a pill that would block the virus that often leads to cervical cancer.

They’ve been working on it for nearly a decade. Their problem is they’re low on funding.

It’s a familiar roadblock for academic researchers all over the country. They come up with a concept for an invention or new technology; they conduct the preliminary tests, then can’t find the money needed to get their product to the market.

Closing that funding gap is something LSU President F. King Alexander has identified as a priority. Earlier this month, LSU’s Board of Supervisors created a fund that would help researchers turn their ideas into something tangible that can be sold.

The Leveraging Innovation for Technology Transfer, or LSU LIFT Fund, is a pool of money researchers can compete for. Twice a year, LSU will award grants of up to $50,000 to close the gap between research conducted in a laboratory and products ready to be sold on the market.

A lot of the research performed at the university level is in early stages, according to Nicole Baute Honorée, LSU’s director of research and economic development. Researchers need time and money to prove their concept works.

“That funding is very hard to get. Companies only like it when an invention is at a stage where it’s close to being marketable,” Honorée said. “LIFT moves the process along. It will help (researchers) validate that their pencil and paper idea will work.

“We say we are serious about supporting innovation; my comment to the board was put your money where your mouth is.”

LSU set aside $2 million to launch the LIFT Fund. Honorée said she expects the first grant will be awarded in July. Administrators are betting that LSU’s campuses can produce enough innovation to constantly replenish the money in the fund.

Today, when an LSU researcher comes up with a marketable invention, 40 percent of the money earned by selling the idea goes to the faculty, 50 percent goes to the campus and the remaining 10 percent goes to the Office of the President.

The new plan calls for the last 10 percent to be split up with 5 percent going to the President’s Office and 5 percent going into the LIFT Fund.

A $50,000 LIFT Fund grant might be the difference Arthur Haas and his team need to get his cervical cancer pill to the market within the next several years versus having the idea founder for lack of funding.

Haas is head of biochemistry and molecular biology at the LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans. He along with lead investigator Virginia Ronchi and research associate Jennifer Klein have been working on the concept.

Haas said the team has been studying human papillomavirus, a broad category of more than 100 distinct viruses that infect the sexually active.

Most who are infected don’t suffer from any symptoms. Others can contract a number of diseases including cervical cancer.

The team has developed what it calls a compound that allows cells to “clear” the virus before they become cancerous.

“There’s a vaccine for HPV, but that’s expensive and not practical in Third World countries,” Haas said.

The compound the team is working on is in its second generation. Haas said they are trying to create a third generation.

“We need to get it 10 times better than the second generation before drug companies will be interested,” he said.

On LSU’s main campus in Baton Rouge, another team is working on a synthetic gel, known informally as “bone foam,” that would help repair broken bones.

LSU’s senior intellectual property manager, Britt Thomas, said he thinks of the gel as Elmer’s glue for the body, a material that can fuse two bone segments together in a matter of seconds.

Thomas said the gel also can be molded and hardened to be used during surgery for people who have suffered serious bone injuries or people suffering from cancers that require large segments of bone to be removed from the body.

Surgeons can prefashion the material and insert it into their patients to take the place of actual bone, he said.

An LSU LIFT grant could pay for testing to transform the “bone foam” into a product used in hospitals, he said.

“This has been in the making for years,” Thomas said.