Relieving a throbbing headache, stuffy nose or aching stomach often takes no more effort than tapping a few colored capsules from bottle to palm. But before new medical treatments reach their patients, the road from research lab to drugstore shelf is long and complex, often spanning more than a decade.

Now, a new $7.5 million fund will help University researchers shave a few years off the process by providing additional resources to propel promising projects from the research to the consumer stages.

The program, MTRAC for Life Sciences, is partially funded by a $2.4 million grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s 21st Century Jobs Fund. The remainder of the funding will be provided by the University’s Medical School, the Vice President for Research’s Office, and the Office of Technology Transfer.

While the Medical School has consistently ranked highly in terms of funding, Connie Chang, director of the Medical School’s Office of Business Development, said MTRAC is the first vehicle dedicated exclusively to jumpstarting projects with commercial potential.

In typical circumstances, researchers scope out many small pockets of research grants to test their ideas, a process that often draws out the timeframe of the development process. The new funding program, however, will pump in more money at earlier stages when studies look promising but fall short of capturing a biomedical company’s investment.

Once the research is identified as promising, grant funds, as well as an oversight committee of experts, provide additional resources to catalyze development.

But before funding is funneled towards specific projects, the Medical School must select which efforts have the potential for commercialization. Tom Shanley, associate dean of clinical and translational research at the Medical School, is involved in the early selection stage.

In the vetting process his team considers two main factors. They look for approaches or technologies that can have the greatest impact on a health problem and would have a large enough market to have a likelihood of commercial success.

While all of the research is important and potentially groundbreaking, not every project meets the qualifications. Some research may transform the way physicians care for specific diseases, but may not have the potential for being turned into a pharmaceutical device, technological advancement or diagnostic method.

Advancements not specifically slated for market are disseminated throughout the medical community and still have a significant impact, even though they are not converted into a tangible product.

Once vetted, Shanley said an advisory board provides experts to help researchers navigate the development process, including advice in handling FDA regulations and optimizing clinical studies.

The Office of Technology Transfer, a contributor to the program, is specifically dedicated to moving development projects along by providing project teams, seeking out venture capitalists and generally assisting entrepreneurs. MTRAC seeks to augment these efforts by proactively identifying projects it can expedite.

“It builds on already a very strong foundation,” Chang said. “I think it’s the right time for us to think about being proactive about helping to move these projects forward. It’s a really important strategic direction we have to move in and it helps to accelerate what was happening before organically.”

In addition, Shanley and Chang said the program, partially funded by the state of Michigan, has potential to spur economic growth in the region and state.

“There would some advantage to the Michigan economy if that development process requires a new business entity because that would mean jobs and improved economy for the state when achieving that marketable product,” Shanley said. “This is a very exciting partnership between the Medical School and the state and we think this is going to be a crucial component of the overall innovation program.”

Besides the economic impact, Chang said the program is crucial in the crusade to improve patient care.

“If we really want to change the face of health care, if we really want to impact patient care we really have to think about how the research we are doing is going to become a new product or innovation that is going to get to the market and impact people.”

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