A Year’s Worth of Work, But So Worth It
Twenty-three Team Master’s Project teams made presentations this year; covering everything from HIV stem cell therapies to the clinical landscape of Huntington’s disease.
Lilly, Pfizer, Amgen, Gilead and Boehringer Ingelheim were part of an impressive list of life science companies sponsoring a KGI Team Master's Project (TMP) this year-with several companies sponsoring more than one. TMPs are capstone projects in which teams of three to six students work with a life science company to solve real-world problems. The annual TMP Presentation Day, which gives the teams a chance to show off a year's worth of hard work, is a highlight of KGI's academic year.
"Every year, the quality of these projects is so high it's hard to believe that it can be consistently maintained year after year," KGI President Sheldon Schuster said, "but each year it is, and each year the scope and range of the problems addressed expand."
Varant Shirvanian, MBS '14, and a member of the City of Hope "HIV Therapies" team, said he felt particularly privileged to be developing a business plan for a "therapy that has the potential to revolutionize the way HIV is treated and have real impact on patient's lives."
Developed by Dr. Dave DiGiusto at COH's Beckman Research Institute, the therapy involves modifying a patient's own stem cells to be resistant to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
In order to get a handle on the unique challenges of commercializing a gene therapy product, Shirvanian and team members Melissa Campos and Brigette Duran talked to experts in venture capital, regenerative medicine, regulatory approval, technology transfer, and biotech operations. The team also conducted a competitive analysis of current HIV therapies. The final plan included detailed financial projections and identified a series of funding milestones for equity investors to fund its operations.
"I think my team was successful because we didn't spend a lot of time worrying about our titles or individual roles; we just collectively focused on each task, deliverable and what we needed to accomplish," said Shirvanian, who added that the team also got a great deal of support from Dr. DiGiusto.
"We had weekly conversations with Dr. DiGiusto. He updated us regularly and really got us a lot of the information that we used in the business plan," added Shirvanian, who said one of the issues the team considered was how to develop a pricing structure for a therapy that had the potential to permanently remove a patient from the HIV population.
"One option is to develop a long-term payment plan that is based on how long a patient is not taking anti-retroviral therapies, which cost an average of about $400,000 during a patient's lifetime," Shirvanian said. "We definitely believed it will be important to create a paradigm that will be approved by the healthcare community as a whole."
Pricing and marketing a novel stem cell therapy like this one are topics Shirvanian is sure to give more thought to in the immediate future as he's landed an investor relations position at Sangamo Biosciences.
The Richmond, California-based company is developing a similar stem cell therapy that could very well be a competitor of the one created at COH.
"Working on a business plan for the past year in the gene therapy field has not only given me experience doing financial modeling, it also has allowed me to get a handle on a lot of the science behind the therapies," Shirvanian said. "So I think I'll really be able to hit the ground running at Sangamo."