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Proving a Concept and Leaping the `Valley of Death`to Demonstrate Potential Value of a Product

Editor's note: The following material is excerpted from the September 15th article, "Proving a Concept and Leaping the'Valley of Death,'" by Wallace Ravven. The full article was published on the University of California Research News website, the article, Ravven provides an example of how a new UC program will help move one veterinary research effort from the laboratory to the marketplace.


A gap — some say a chasm — lies between many a research discovery and its application in the real world.

Scientists compete for federal research grants to treat disease, solve energy needs and boost agriculture production. Those grants may fund early-stage investigations, but research sometimes stalls or ends before an innovation is ripe for development by industry.  A promising technology or treatment often gets stuck in the funding gap known in academia and industry as the “valley of death.”

A new program aimed at bridging the gap has just been launched by the UC Office of the President. Called “Proof of Concept” grants, the funding supports researchers ready to take that big leap and demonstrate the potential value of a product for thousands, or even millions, of people. The new program aims to carry emerging technology and treatments over the valley to private industry’s doorstep. It could be a classic win-win for researchers, the university, the public and the state’s economy.

“Our UC faculty and researchers are leaders in invention, and it’s central to the mission of our public university system to help ensure their innovations make a difference to society and the economy,” said Steven Beckwith, UC vice president for research and graduate studies. “Helping bridge the gap from the lab to real life is a critical investment we can make not only on behalf of our leading innovators and UC, but for the benefit of California.”

Thirteen projects were selected to receive from $100,000 to $250,000 each in the first round of the Proof of Concept (POC) funding. They range from innovations to clean polluted agricultural water to medical interventions for traumatic brain injuries.  (See more information and full list of grant winners.)

Saving calves

The new [Proof of Concept]-funded projects range not only from the laboratory to the clinic, but the farms, too. A grant to a scientist at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine offers the first realistic chance to prevent the annual loss of tens of thousands of calves in California’s foothill ranches. The calves are victims of a pernicious tick-borne bacterial disease that infects pregnant cows. Though they show no initial signs of disease, the heifers abort their calves six to nine months into their pregnancy.

Known as epizootic bovine abortion, the disease has taken a toll on foothill cattle for more than 50 years, and it’s an often-devastating loss to independent ranchers. Current costs to western U.S. cattle producers are estimated in the millions of dollars.

Six years ago Jeffrey Stott, a UC Davis professor of pathology, microbiology and immunology, and his colleagues discovered the bacterium that causes the disease. The microbe had been nearly impossible to identify because, like most bacteria, it can’t be grown in the lab. Stott’s team used DNA comparisons to distinguish the bacterium from bovine genes in diseased fetuses, and then devised a way to experimentally transmit the disease to immunodeficient mice. In a painstaking effort, the scientists then built up enough of the infectious agent to prove that it was this bacterium alone that caused the cattle to abort their fetuses.

The scientists have developed a vaccine designed to trigger an immune response to the bacterium that can make the cow resistant to infection and protect her developing fetus. The POC grant supports a project to establish the effectiveness of the candidate vaccine.

Stott expects that a successful demonstration will stir commercial interest in vaccine production. Development would otherwise likely stall, since drug makers are reluctant to carry out such drug discovery research themselves when the market for the potential drug is fairly small.

The POC grant comes at the perfect time, Stott says. “If we can establish that the vaccine will work as it has in our preliminary studies, we should be able to protect 100 percent of the heifers. That should get us over the hurdle of convincing drug companies of its potential.”