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Breaking down barriers to research success

Rutgers, UMDNJ will leverage merger for deeper partnerships with pharma

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Rutgers leaders Christopher J. Molloy, left, and Kenneth J. Breslauer believe academia and industry, including pharma, must partner on research. – AARON HOUSTON
Rutgers leaders Christopher J. Molloy, left, and Kenneth J. Breslauer believe academia and industry, including pharma, must partner on research. – AARON HOUSTON

If you ask Kenneth J. Breslauer whether industry and academia can be good partners, he'll tell you neither side has a choice.

"The days are gone when you had the divide between the ivory towers and corporate America," said Breslauer, vice president for health science partnerships at Rutgers University. "In fact, both not only realized they needed each other but they embrace each other."

The end of that divide has led to new opportunities for research universities. Soon the dissolution of another divide could help Rutgers better capitalize on the spirit of cooperation.

Come July 1, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey will officially become part of Rutgers, giving the state's largest university two medical schools, a dentistry school and the Cancer Institute of New Jersey.

Breslauer said the change will make Rutgers a much more attractive partner for the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries because it will allow its industry partners to leverage university expertise ranging from the labs of basic science all the way to the clinics of medical schools and teaching hospitals.

"Our researchers want to find a way to translate this science into a product," he said. "They need industry for that. Industry wants to have a chance to help train the next work force in areas that are a focus for them, by working with the faculty and students at the university and acting as externship (sites) for some of the training of our students. You could not design a better win-win situation."

Breslauer said Rutgers and UMDNJ have worked together to partner with industry in the past, but such agreements meant two layers of bureaucracy since contracts and intellectual property rights had to be sorted out in agreements with both institutions individually.

"That's been a barrier for many companies that want one single interface right from the basic to translational and clinical sciences," Breslauer said. "And so that coherence of the relationship without needing to have one-offs on each institution makes us a much more operationally friendly entity."

Christopher J. Molloy, interim provost for biomedical and health sciences at Rutgers, said the integration not only removes an extra layer of bureaucracy, but also allows both schools the opportunity to thoroughly assess their operations and adopt best practices as the joint entity takes shape.

"There are things that UMDNJ does in terms of operation that are better than how Rutgers operates," he said. "And we'll adopt those. So we're not looking to make them adopt only Rutgers policies and practices. We're looking to really find best-in-breed practices."

The potential impact of the reorganization extends beyond Rutgers itself.

Dean J. Paranicas, president and CEO the HealthCare Institute of New Jersey, a life sciences industry trade group, said partnership opportunities are a key selling point.

"It's a very important factor in the competitive landscape," he said. "When we look at those states with whom New Jersey competes… they've got outstanding universities they've got outstanding environments like that and so under those circumstances a key component is the caliber of the higher education institutions and the research and development capabilities they can offer to the private sector."

Breslauer said much of the need for partnership is driven by the advent of personalized medicine, where drugs are customized to particular patients, rather than the traditional one-size-fits-all approach. New Jersey is already an attractive location for personalized medicine trials, he said, because the state is so diverse. The merger will enhance that advantage, he said.

The integration process is allowing the school to identify and emphasize the strengths of its various schools and centers, said Molloy, but it also will allow the university to build on those strengths by recruiting top-notch faculty.

"Our plans are to recruit the best faculty in the world to this university," he said.

Molloy said UMDNJ has been challenged in this regard because of its financial woes, a problem that will be abated by the merger. The first evidence of that was the hiring of Dr. Stephen K. Burley in December to head UMDNJ's Center for Integrative Proteomics Research.

"We have had challenges with top-notch translational medical scien-tists who wanted to bridge the comprehensive research of a university like Rutgers with the clinical aspects (of a medical school)," Breslauer said. "And they didn't have the same enthusiasm for being recruited here when they represented two separate universities."

Tracye McDaniel, CEO of the business recruitment nonprofit Choose New Jersey, said the step forward moves toward the broader goal of building a life sciences "ecosystem" of universities, hospitals, industry and others. She said realizing that goal will require long-term cooperation.

"This whole concept of innovation and collaboration is a buzzword today," she said. "But it definitely is a marathon."

Molloy agreed that the process should unfold over time, noting that President Dr. Robert Barchi has just embarked on a strategic planning initiative to help envision the school's future. But Molloy said there's good reason for optimism.

"We're just taking this historic opportunity to sort of re-invent Rutgers," he said. "And it's a very exciting time to be at Rutgers, for all kinds of reasons."

E-mail to: jaredk@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @jaredkaltwasser

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