Industry-Sponsored Research Week

Boston U Innovator of the Year lauded for Pfizer collaboration


By David Schwartz
Published: November 19th, 2019

Boston University researcher Weining Lu has been named Boston University’s “Innovator of the Year” based on his collaboration with drug company Pfizer to develop a potential new drug that could offer new hope to the hundreds of millions of people suffering from chronic kidney disease. 

Lu, associate professor of medicine, took a different path at BU than many of his colleagues, throwing his energy into working with industry rather than seeking more traditional government funding for his work. “Academia and industry scientists working together — that’s a completely different research model than being funded by the National Institutes of Health or a foundation grant,” says Lu.

The research with Pfizer, funded by the drug maker’s Center for Therapeutic Innovation (CTI) beginning in 2012, focused on a gene called ROBO2 that Hu hypothesized could play a key role in moderating kidney function. The promising drug candidate is now in phase 2 clinical trials.

“Translating basic research into real-world products, especially in the medical domain, is exceptionally difficult and not an area that many of our faculty are engaged in,” says Gloria Waters, BU vice president and associate provost for research. “It is very exciting to see one of our faculty members working to translate their basic research into a potential therapeutic that could have a tremendous impact on patients.”

The collaboration has been so successful that David Salant, BU School of Medicine vice-chair of research, said it “could serve as a blueprint” for other biopharma partnerships.

Lu and his research team made an unexpected discovery while studying the ROBO2 gene, he recalls. Because the gene is highly expressed in the developing kidney and urinary tract, they surmised that a lack of it would result in kidney and urinary defects at birth, as well as cause adult kidney disease. “Instead, we found that if you block or delete ROBO2 after birth, it could potentially help kidney function,” he said.

Although he wanted to publish the results of his findings, Lu took a gamble and held off in order to protect any potential patent rights – which ended up being a critical decision in his path to the long partnership with Pfizer.

“Deciding to take a chance on a non-traditional research route in collaboration with industry, which works at a different pace, plays by a different set of rules, and communicates progress in a different way … that’s a really hard choice for an academic researcher to make,” says Michael Pratt, BU’s managing director of technology development. “But it really accelerated the project. Lu took a risk and it paid off with the science.”

Lu says it helps to keep the end goal in mind. In the case of ROBO2, it could be a significant game changer for the 37 million people in the U.S. and 850 million people worldwide with chronic kidney disease. His advice to other researchers? “I would say to persist and believe in your science.”

Source: The Brink

Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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