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Celebrating the successes, and global reach, of Stanford’s SPARK

Posted by neal pascua on October 20, 2016

On Tuesday morning, I grabbed my pencil, my skinny reporter’s notebook, and my gala invitation. Stanford School of Medicine was celebrating the 10th anniversary of SPARK.

SPARK was designed to bridge the gap between academia and industry. Founded by Daria Mochly-Rosen, PhD, and co-directed by Kevin Grimes, MD, the program transports research from the lab to patients by guiding and supporting researchers, with the help of industry advisors.

When I arrived at the conference center, the first thing the event organizers gave me was a larger notebook.

The event started with a series of talks from researchers who have been supported by SPARK (“SPARKees”), who talked about their accomplishments, hopes for the future of their projects, and gratitude for the SPARK program. Among them was Shirit Einav, MD, whose project involved the repurposing of already approved anticancer drugs and developing of novel molecules to use as anti-viral therapy for global health concerns such as Ebola and dengue. She explained how SPARK helped to guide her and played a large role in pushing it into the clinic for fighting Ebola.

“It was really a great privilege to be part of the program from the very beginning,” Einav said. She witnessed the transition of the program from “when it was just a small spark, maybe even an experimental adventure to where it is today, a full sky of fireworks.”

For his talk, Paul Bollyky, MD, PhD, pulled up a picture of Charles Darwin and Ann Landers. “I think scientists are quite good at problem solving and one thing that doesn’t come as intuitively is adapting to the marketplace,” he said. Just like how the theory of evolution changes the way we look at biology, SPARK, “has made me think very differently about the science I do and what I’m trying to achieve as a physician scientist.” He said Ann Landers, an iconic advice columnist, was there to remind him to make the point that the most important thing he gained from SPARK was advice.

During a coffee break, Grimes encouraged attendees to rip off the bottom of their conveniently perforated nametag and write down what “SPARK”s their passions. In the hallway, over some mingling and coffee conversations, members of the audience — SPARKees, industry advisors, students, and faculty — jotted down what they hoped SPARK would accomplish, such as “cure childhood diseases” or “find inhibitors to help arthritis” and added it to a board for display. It quickly grew.

A map of the world stood next to the board, and a volunteer took photos of audience members and attached it to their birthplaces. Soon, country lines began to disappear under the photos spanning the map. This was a glimpse into the global involvement of the program.

Later in the day we heard from Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, and from SPARK advisors including Benjamin McGraw, PhD, chairman and CEO of TheraVida Inc. and CEO of Auration Biotech, Inc. and Juan Harrison, vice president for the center for external innovation at Takeda. They talked about the large impacts of programs such as SPARK, especially in the field of precision health. The program is “the model for interactions between industry leaders and academia,” Minor said. “Already in 10 very brief years there’s been this enormous accomplishment from the SPARK team, and I know that the next ten years and beyond are going to be even more exciting.”

Mochly-Rosen ended the event with a sweeping look into the future of the program. She described how after hearing about the Zika virus last January, she contacted the director of SPARK in Brazil and asked if they needed help developing a vaccine. Quickly, the directors brought together two research teams and allocated funds to them to collaborate. “Within 45 days from the first phone call, these two groups started to work together,” she said. They are achieving “terrific progress in making a vaccine against this devastating virus.”

Mochly-Rosen used this as an example of how quickly their team can act, relative to other organizations, to combat global-health issues, and she said they’d like to broaden the scope of the program to include more of these issues. “There are many other threats that we are facing as a global society, and by activating this network of scientists without borders, we can be bigger, we can be better, we can do a lot,” she said. “This is the next generation of SPARK.”

Original blog by Yasemin Saplakoglu, Scope: Stanford Medicine.