Economic development officials regularly cite a need to boost collaboration between the state's life sciences sector and its academic institutions, but bringing the two worlds together is easier said than done.
As of this week, the state has a new success story.
The New Jersey Institute of Technology said Wednesday its innovative taste-masking has been licensed by Catalent Pharma Solutions, in the Somerset section of Franklin, for use in masking the bitter taste of pharmaceutical ingredients. The deal is the result of a research project funded by Catalent and led by Rajesh Davé, a distinguished professor at NJIT.
Davé said taste is a serious problem for pharmaceuticals, but it's not an easy problem to solve.
"Traditionally, taste-masking is done on the tablet itself," he said. "The tablet can be coated so, when you swallow it, you're not going to taste the medication."
That system is OK, but it doesn't work with certain drug formulations, such as fast-dissolve tablets and chewable pills. Such formulations are a specialty at Catalent, which provides a range of services to clients in the drug industry, ranging from drug discovery to manufacturing. Catalent's proprietary drug delivery platforms include the "Liqui-Gel" tablet made famous by Advil.
Catalent found out about Davé's work on particle engineering and realized it might present a solution. After striking a deal with Catalent, Davé and his team of graduate students were able to taste-mask individual particles in a manner that would prevent bitterness, but also allow the medicine to release in the stomach in a timely manner.
Rao Tatapudy, vice president of scientific affairs at Catalent, said the NJIT research isn't just about making pills taste better, but also about improving health care.
"It comes down mainly to patient adherence and patient compliance," he said.
The hope is patients will be more likely to take their medications on schedule if they can swallow a pill without wincing.
Tatapudy said the technology will initially be used for fast-dissolve pills, like Catalent's Zydis platform, but he said it could possibly work in other types of formulations down the road.
Beyond the scientific success of the partnership, both sides say they were also pleased with the working relationship. Many would-be industry/academia partnerships are derailed early on by legal, contractual or cultural issues.
Judith Sheft, associate vice president of technology development at NJIT, said the school tried to be proactive and business-like from the very beginning of the relationship.
"We spent the time up-front thinking through the issues and how we were going to address those concerns," she said.
Sheft said that up-front approach helped get the deal off the ground, and fix new issues that arose as the research progressed.
Tatapudy, a 27-year veteran of the pharmaceutical industry who joined Catalent in March 2011, said he was impressed with how the NJIT research team handled the collaboration, even setting up weekly conference calls with Catalent.
"It came as a shock to me that they were ready every week for the conference call," he said. "They were ready with their data, and all they were waiting for was input as to whether they were on the right track."
Tatapudy said normally a company might receive quarterly updates from an academic collaborator. Those updates often reveal that the researchers have gone off in the wrong direction, he said.
Davé said he's intentional about bringing a business-like approach to his research.
"At NJIT, we compete for everything — our name recognition, funding, getting papers published, getting students — so I had no choice but to develop an almost cold-blooded business approach to research," he said.
Tatapudy said the success with NJIT has given him leeway within the company to expand its academic outreach. Catalent also is currently working with St. John's University.
For his part, Davé said he hopes the project lures more industry collaboration for the school.
Sheft said such deals have implications not just for the parties involved, but also for the state's economy as a whole.
"One of the ways I think we're really going to help the state of New Jersey overall is through these collaborative efforts between industry and academia," she said. "This is a really great example of one that works."