Horrors! Hopkins Med Goes Commercial


October 28, 1991|By TIM BAKER

The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine has changed. It must havehappened sometime during the last year. But most of us didn't notice. I don't remember any dramatic reorganizations or reforms.

Then suddenly three weeks ago the venerable Baltimore institution did something which clearly demonstrated that it has quietly but profoundly transformed itself.

At first the event didn't look significant. The medical school merely put on a symposium called ''Genes, Drugs and Devices: Investing in Science for Life.'' It didn't sound revolutionary. It was scheduled as a part of the second annual Greater Baltimore High Tech Assembly -- the exciting three-week series of programs, venture-capital fairs and international biotechnology conferences sponsored by the Greater Baltimore Committee's High Tech Forum.

I thought the symposium would be a dull scientific meeting. But if I had read the brochure more carefully, the words would have jumped off the page.

''This symposium is intended . . . especially for individuals interested in the commercial application of biomedical discoveries.'' The brochure specifically invited ''licensing personnel, venture capitalists and . . . executives in the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, device and diagnostic industries.''

Commercial applications! Business executives! Venture capitalists! Barbarians at the gate! In the old days Hopkins would never have permitted, let alone invited these profiteers to invade its academic sanctity.

Yet the new dean, Michael M. E. Johns, calmly introduced some of the medical school's most outstanding scientists, asked them to describe their research and unequivocally committed Hopkins medical school to the process of commercializing their discoveries.

Dean Johns himself described the event as a ''watershed.'' While he emphasized that Hopkins will remain a research institution dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, he clearly gave technology transfer a prominence and priority it has never before enjoyed.

As a visible and practical step, Dean Johns announced the establishment of a Drug and Device Development Center. This new office will act as a gateway through which businesses, especially small pioneering companies, can get help in finding their way through the bewildering labyrinth of the Hopkins medical institutions. More important, the center will offer to businesses Hopkins' expert faculty and product-evaluation capacities to assess the effectiveness and commercial feasibility new drugs and medical devices.

The center builds on a number of steps Hopkins has taken over the last five years. Dean Johns' predecessor, Dr. Richard S. Ross, put into place many of the structural components of Hopkins' new emphasis on commercialization. He created the Office of Technology Licensing, which guides Hopkins' inventions through the complicated processes of licensing and patenting. Dr. Francis J. Meyer, who runs the office, has quietly built a sophisticated and effective organization that has won the trust and confidence of the faculty.

Since 1986, the number of commercializable inventions has risen from 16 to 95 per year. Annual patent applications have trebled. Annual licenses have quadrupled. Annual royalties have jumped from $153,000 to $1.2 million.

Despite these increases, Hopkins hesitated to make a full commitment to the process of commercializing its scientific discoveries. The faculty feared that business goals would create crippling conflicts of interest, block the free flow of information, undermine the institutional integrity of an academic medical center, and threaten their independence to pursue biomedical knowledge for its own sake.

Hopkins has now decided that it can commercialize its technologies and still preserve its integrity and protect its fundamental academic research mission.

In part, this significant change in attitude rests on a realistic recognition that Hopkins must find alternative sources of funding for its research. Growing financial constraints, particularly in federal grants, have already postponed and even killed a number of creative experiments and thwarted the development of new medical technologies.

Corporate funds offer the only relief. They're still only a small part of Hopkins' $192 million of research funding. But they're growing much faster than other sources. Since 1985, commercial support for sponsored research has jumped 594 percent from $1.7 million to $11.8 million. It grew 19.2 percent last year, twice as fast as funding from any other source.

Money alone, however, could never drive this process past the faculty's ethical concerns. Two other factors played a major role. First, the school has had five years of reassuring experience with the commercial process. Faculty members have worked with businessmen who have proved that they, too, can be sensitive to the institution's basic academic mission.

More important, Hopkins has realized that the commercial process offers the best vehicles for moving medical inventions from the scientist's laboratory to the patient's bedside. As Dean Johns pointed out at the seminar, the effective delivery of health-care advances is just as important as scientific medical discoveries.

Hopkins got off to a late start in technology transfer. It still has a long way to go to catch up with Stanford University, which began the march a generation ago.

But Hopkins is now rolling. The school's progress deserves recognition and acknowledgment. Its stuffy old reputation will undoubtedly linger on for awhile. But suddenly this great institution looks and sounds like a new and even better place.

Tim Baker writes on issues of city and state.

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