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Interview: The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research

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Non-dilutive funding sources are available if you know where to look. Building relationships with key contacts from government agencies, foundations, and other organizations can provide valuable investments and insights to move research projects forward. 

Sohini Chowdhury, Deputy CEO of The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, shares her insights on how companies can tap into her organization's capabilities and resources.

partneringNEWS (pN): How does MJFF work with biotech companies?

Sohini Chowdhury (SC): The Michael J. Fox Foundations partners with biotech companies in a number of ways. We fund early-stage high-risk projects to help biotechs build data packages. A number of MJFF-funded companies have been acquired and are moving through or have completed late-stage trials (e.g., Civitas, Cynapsus, Neuroderm).

We also work with companies to problem solve and move the field forward. Our landmark biomarkers study, the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative, has 20 industry partners. The Parkinson’s Disease Research Tools Consortium of pharmaceutical companies nominates research tools (e.g., antibodies, assays, models) to join the MJFF catalog of accessible, characterized research tools.

A growing area of MJFF contribution to the field is connecting biotechs with the patient community. We’ve launched an online study, Fox Insight, to collect patient-reported outcomes on, for example, symptom impact, disease lexicon and medication effect. This information can drive trial design and support regulatory conversations and decisions. In addition, our Patient Council has served as a model for some pharmaceutical companies, and some council members are participating in a pilot project with the Medical Device Innovation Consortium to incorporate patient benefit/risk preference in setting the terms for significant outcomes in clinical trials.

pN: When you fund companies, how involved does MJFF become in a project? (i.e., an over-the-transom approach, regular consultations, etc.)

SC: Our grants are milestone-driven. Before approval, our team works with the grantee to define the goals, set timelines and provide resources (e.g., laboratory tools, recruitment materials). The grantee visits the Foundation for assessment meetings during the grant period—often meeting others working in the same field and forming collaborations—and for an outcome report at the completion of the project.

pN: You have several programs underway. Briefly, what are they looking for from biotech and how can biotech companies participate?

 SC: There are several core areas of potential involvement.

Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative: Our industry sponsors provide financial and/or in-kind support and intellectual input on study focus and design. We’re always open to more partners in those regards. Also, we make all PPMI data and biospecimens available (among those from other studies) to qualified researchers. We welcome biotechs to download the data and apply for biospecimens to spur discovery and validation.

 Fox Insight (big data analytics and wearables): We’re just getting Fox Insight running, but we plan to make de-identified data from the study available for download.

Parkinson's Disease Research Tools Consortium (a precompetitive consortium): Again, we’re always looking for partners for our programs. And our research tools catalog lists the many tools we’ve already produced that are available to researchers easily and at low cost.

Anyone interested in partnering on the above programs or other MJFF projects can learn more by contacting researchpartnerships@michaeljfox.org.

pN: What will be the hot topics for researchers hoping to work with MJFF in 2018?

SC: The bottom line is there is always a way to work with us, whether its downloading study data, supporting our educational initiatives, using our research tools or applying for funding—just to name a few.

In 2018, we’re looking to engage more data scientists. Through our Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative, the expanded application of ‘omics technologies, and the power of data capture with wearable devices and smartphones, the Parkinson’s field is amassing reams and reams of data on the biological and clinical experience of Parkinson’s disease. We need the smart minds of data scientists to join with our brilliant Parkinson’s researchers to mine that data for relevant discoveries.

pN: How can biotech companies position themselves to attract your interest?

SC: We work for the patients, so if you have a promising idea with sound scientific rationale that could make a true impact for the Parkinson’s patient community, you have our interest.

pN: What are your criteria for investing or collaborating with biotech companies?

SC: We structure our collaborations in many ways. We fund small biotechs and large pharma all around the world. Our RFA programs often have funding and application parameters; most collaborations start with a conversation, so our staff is the best place to start.

pN: What do you consider some of your most successful biotech investments/collaborations and why?

SC:  Because everything we do has the patient in mind, some of the investments we are most proud of are the therapies that are close to FDA review and potential widespread application for the patient community (e.g., Civitas/Acorda, Cynapsus/Sunovion). That said, much of our work is behind the scene and building infrastructure to enable progress by others. In that vein, we feel the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative and our online clinical study-matching tool Fox Trial Finder have had great impact. By building an unprecedented open-access database and connecting study sponsors with interested volunteers, respectively, these programs have moved research forward.

pN: Under what conditions is follow-on investment a possibility?

SC: Our on-staff scientific team and expert advisors decide on supplemental funding. There is the option for additional support if initial findings are promising and we feel the proposed next step is imperative to continue that trajectory.

pN: What are the best ways to contact MJFF about the possibility of working together?

SC: Email researchpartnerships@michaeljfox.org. You can also visit www.michaeljfox.org/funding to apply to our RFA programs or www.michaeljfox.org/dataspecimens for information on accessing data and biospecimens.

Join Sohini Chowdhury at BioPharm America™, September 26-27, 2017 in Boston for her panel discussion Alternative financing and venture philanthropy.

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