On one ridge stand scientists clutching discoveries rich with possibility; along another are physicians reaching for therapies to alleviate their patients' suffering. Between them runs an abyss, its floor strewn with abandoned drug candidates and failed clinical trials.
Into this chasm ventured two unsuspecting Harvard Medical School neurobiology professors, Clifford Woolf and Bruce Bean. After years of collaboration, the scientists wanted to use their experience in deciphering the neurophysiology of pain to develop a new generation of analgesics. Joining forces with a group of neurobiologists and clinicians, they sought venture capital. In 2006, the group launched Solace Pharmaceuticals with a plan to translate several key discoveries into new drugs - and to bridge the gaps between bench and bedside, basic and applied science, academic and the pharmaceutical industry.
Neither Woolf nor Bean had attempted anything like this before, and they found that the journey from idea to drug carried a steeper learning curve and more steps - seeking a patent, licensing the technology, raising money for further testing, among many others - than either had anticipated. Nevertheless, their plan seemed to proceed flawlessly, and they quickly identified a compound that relieved pain in rats. Then came the giant hurdle of translation to human clinical trials.
"The results were beautifully clear," says Woolf. "The drug didn't work in humans."
The researchers had experienced a common obstacle: Molecular processes in animals don't necessarily translate to human biology.