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Academia in Action: Translating fundamental science for impact

Red background with title of story "Academia in Action: Translating fundamental science for impact" and a photo of Minna Roh-Johnson.

Every university researcher has their first introduction to technology transfer at some point in their career. Many scientists might have a knee jerk, negative reaction to the idea of commercialization, but University of Utah biochemistry assistant professor Minna Roh-Johnson said she recently realized pursuing basic science and translating research out of the lab is not an either-or situation.

“I think they think about it as sort of icky. It makes them feel uncomfortable because they're not trying to monetize their findings. They’re trying to just discover the truth, and it feels like commercialization goes against sort of the inherent principles of a scientist,” she said. “It's not a mutually exclusive situation. You can be interested in the fundamental aspects of science, and you can really want to help people and that's OK.”

That realization happened for Roh-Johnson, who came to the U in 2018, when she realized a project they were working on in her lab had significant potential to impact real people but it was too risky for traditional funding sources. “We just didn't have enough data for federal funding or our normal lines of funding to be like this is going to be a surefire thing,” Roh-Johnson said. “What we needed was more data, but it takes so much money and time to generate those data, and we had no funding streams coming in.”

Stuck in this seemingly impossible situation, Roh-Johnson realized that just like she had diversified the projects and people in her lab, she also needed to diversify the funding streams coming into the lab, so she reached out to PIVOT Center Associate Director of Commercialization Aaron Duffy. “Diversifying everything about your environment is important,” Roh-Johnson said. “It is always going to lead to a successful outcome.”

In the lab, Roh-Johnson and her team of students and collaborators are working on understanding how cells make decisions and how that process could potentially be used to prevent metastasis in certain cancers. With their research they are simultaneously answering fundamental questions of how a cell functions and figuring out what kind of impact that research can have outside the lab.

Roh-Johnson and the researchers in her lab were looking at the potential to use macrophages, a type of immune cell present in tumors, to prevent metastasis in solid tumors. “When you think about immune cells, you probably think of them as protecting the host by fighting off infections, for example,” Roh-Johnson said. “That certainly is something that macrophages do. But in many solid tumors, macrophages have this very different role, where they instead help promote cancer progression.”

The Roh-Johnson lab are developing a technology to essentially teach the macrophages to defeat the cancer cell instead of promoting metastasis. Can we take advantage of the fact that macrophages can take on these many different roles, and engineer macrophages so they are tumor-killing instead of tumor-helping?” she said.

After disclosing the technology earlier this year—Roh-Johnson’s first disclosure—she applied for and received Ascender Grant funding, which helps U inventors bridge the funding gap between research and commercialization.

“Dr. Roh-Johnson’s work is a great example of PIVOT’s commitment to engage with faculty at any stage of their work. While it may not always result in an Ascender Grant being awarded initially, the earlier we can dive into the opportunity, the quicker we can identify resources, including grants, accelerators and/or commercial partners, to complement our faculties’ efforts,” Duffy said. “We’re excited to support Minna and her team as they progress through their Ascender milestones and then map out the next steps.”

Now, Roh-Johnson’s team is using the grant to fund their next set of experiments to provide the much-needed data to continue the research and, hopefully, prove the value and impact of their technology.

“What I would like to tell myself five years ago is that with PIVOT we can really change the way we do our science and change the speed at which we do it,” Roh-Johnson said. “I sort of card carry in terms of being a basic scientist. I'm really proud of it. But at the same time, if our work actually saves people, yeah, I'm not going to lose sleep over that.”

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