Collaborative Research at the Myelin Repair Foundation
"In 2001, Scott Johnson was a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur. He had everything he wanted in life, except for one thing: afflicted with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) for 25 years, he lacked a clear path back to full health. That year, he read a brief article in BusinessWeek about the possibility of myelin repair. Myelin is the protective coating surrounding nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord. It is the destruction of myelin in MS that causes the symptoms of the disease, and even death.
Understanding how to repair the myelin damaged by MS could mean stopping the disease in its tracks. So began an investigation that led Johnson in 2003 to found the Myelin Repair Foundation (MRF), a non-profit medical research foundation dedicated to accelerating basic medical research into myelin repair therapies that could dramatically improve the lives of people suffering from MS. Of the many medical research foundations doing good work out in the world, MRF is unique because of its collaborative, plan-driven, managed approach to realizing innovation breakthroughs. Realizing that a broad network of researchers could do more than individual investigators working in relative isolation, Johnson pulled together five leading scientists and their labs asking them to work together in the name of collaborative discovery. Any patents resulting from collaboration within this merged network of researchers would be allocated to the foundation, and royalties shared among all participating institutions. The result is a new hybrid model for medical research that borrows from both the worlds of business and science.
This networked approach to leading innovation seems to be working. MRF says this approach is cutting in half the time it takes to discover a viable therapeutic drug. In 2006 Johnson was recognized among 50 individuals worldwide by Scientific American for innovation and policy leadership. At that point he said, “Before we started this, if you asked experts how long it would be until myelin repair drug targets might be licensed, they replied 15 to 20 years. With this process we expect to license the first target by 2009.” In 2007, after only three years of research, the MRF scientific team had identified 13 novel therapeutic targets, and more than a dozen new research tools, assays and animal models. MRF has filed nine patents on those discoveries to date. When compared with leading research universities, this result is more than three times greater per million dollars in research expenditures. By embracing the networked nature of our modern world, the model MRF is developing and demonstrating has the potential to speed all medical research, bringing treatments to those who suffer from other chronic or debilitating diseases for which there are no effective treatments or cures. Networked innovation looks promising." (http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/itgg.2007.2.3.3)