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VOL. 133 | NO. 35 | Friday, February 16, 2018

First User Moving Into Innovation Lab at UTHSC

By Andy Meek

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Dr. Monica Jablonski, a professor in the Department of Ophthalmology in the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s College of Medicine, has been moving into a new office in recent days, just down the street.

Jablonski has been setting up shop in a new 420-square-foot space in the Memphis Bioworks Foundation, 20 Dudley St., that houses the UTHSC Innovation Lab.

Dr. Monica Jablonski

It’s a space born out of a partnership between UTHSC and the Memphis Bioworks Foundation that’s intended to support researchers and help them ultimately commercialize their work. Jablonski, who’s been on the school’s faculty since 1998, was chosen as the first user of the space, which affords her benefits that include standard lab equipment and consulting services.

She does little teaching at the school, with most of her work encompassing her own research and training scientists in the lab. She’s using the innovation space to support her work around fighting the shortcomings of traditional eyedrops and improving treatments for certain eye-related diseases.

The way it’s set up, the lab space is available for up to 12 months at no cost to her. As she develops her intellectual property, she’ll be required to submit at least one grant application during her occupancy.

“This is something brand new. What UT is trying to do, and Memphis as a whole is trying to do, is promote entrepreneurship,” Jablonski said. “This new idea that they recently came up with was to provide incubator space just down the street at Memphis Bioworks to support the translation of technology that’s been developed in a lab and try to take it farther along so it can hopefully eventually be turned into a commercial product. So, in addition to the lab space, there will be mentorship in terms of applying for other government grants and how to navigate the other phases of a business.”

In short, she said, her efforts include a two-fold discovery. One is a new glaucoma therapy, and the other is a drug delivery system that can be used with that treatment as well as other drugs. Her next steps? Developing those discoveries, pushing them even farther.

“We’ve discovered a novel gene and the protein that’s encoded by the gene that plays a role in modulating what is the primary risk factor for developing glaucoma,” she said of the eye disorder, which affects some 3 million people in the U.S. “There just so happens to be an FDA-approved drug that’s very specific for the protein that’s encoded by the gene that we’ve discovered. And we’ve tested that drug. We’ve also devised a way to deliver that drug, because the drug is only as good as the ability to get it to its target tissue, and the target tissue is within the eye.”

She’s excited the university is putting its muscle behind something like the new lab space, and directing resources to it, because of what she says faculty members at many universities often encounter when they invent or discover something.

She calls it the “valley of death” – the fact that scientists often struggle to translate their discoveries into marketable products because they don’t know everything they need to know to navigate that transition.

“We recognize that our faculty are a powerhouse of ideas that often produce discoveries suitable for (intellectual property) development,” said Gabor Tigyi, associate vice chancellor for research and industry relations at UTHSC.

Tigyi thinks the new drug formulation Jablonski is working toward has a market potential “that could reach in the hundreds of millions of dollars.”

“Being able to work in the incubator space and have mentors who will help us navigate the funding is absolutely critical,” Jablonski said. “I’m just as thrilled as I can possibly be to have been selected to be the first person to be in this role. It’s really a great honor.”

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