Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2008 | Inside the laboratories at the BioScience Center at San Diego State University students are researching how chronic infections — even ones as subtle as gum disease — can inflame the entire body and exacerbate heart disease decades later. Others are testing on mice to figure out the role of stem cells in heart failure, particularly in adults who were treated with certain pediatric drugs as children.

While the research isn’t as complex as some that takes place at research havens such as the University of California, San Diego, it is likely to more quickly lead to practical new treatments, vaccines or drugs, said Roberta Gottlieb, director of the two-year-old research facility dedicated to studying the emerging links between heart disease and infectious disease.

The scientific research that takes place at SDSU is often overshadowed by the work underway at the UCSD — the region’s renowned life science powerhouse perched atop the Torrey Pines Mesa.

That’s not surprising, considering that SDSU was chartered as a teaching institution, not as a research center. But recently the campus has moved beyond its core mission, stepping up its research efforts and getting more money as a result. Even more importantly, SDSU administrators say, the university has started to shift its focus to scientific entrepreneurship — helping scientists turn laboratory breakthroughs into commercial products, such as pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

And as SDSU beefs up its research efforts, it’s carving out a niche for itself not traditionally filled by UCSD. SDSU researchers have honed in on applied research, studies that are designed to solve a specific problem, such as cure or treat a disease. UCSD, on the other hand, has traditionally emphasized basic research, in which the main motivation is to expand knowledge. Basic research, also known as “curiosity-driven” research, has no obvious commercial value, but lays the foundation for applied research.

SDSU’s efforts have certainly been noticed. For the last two years, it has been named the top small research university in the nation, according to an index released by Academic Analytics, a for-profit higher education consulting firm in New York state. The recognition made SDSU the flagship research campus of the California State University system and places it above 60 institutions, including the College of William and Mary and the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The ranking system was based on faculty productivity, which includes publications, honorary awards, research grants and citations in scholarly journals.

The small research universities in Academic Analytics’ rankings offer 14 or fewer doctoral programs. SDSU has 12 joint Ph.D programs. If it meets its goals, it will have enough Ph.D programs in the next five years to no longer be considered a small research institution and join the ranks of larger institutions, such as UCSD.

But significant advances in research took off two years ago when the SDSU campus opened the BioScience Center. Overall, the campus has about 800 ongoing studies at any given time focused on everything from analyzing local water quality to salvaging the heart muscle after a heart attack, Gottlieb said. Other university research has included finding ways to decrease obesity, drug use in the local Hispanic community and the development of laser detection methods for early diagnoses of diseases.

“Science can’t make a difference in the world if it can’t become a product,” Gottlieb said. “We have to think about science from a business perspective and package it right so it gets out to people who need it.”

While UCSD also seeks to commercialize some of its researchers’ findings and inventions, the university remains more focused on producing top-notch research and retaining its reputation as an academic institution. On the other hand, SDSU has, for the last five years, placed increasing emphasis on entrepreneurship across all of the disciplines, but particularly in the science arena.

For example, the SDSU Technology Transfer Department, which walks researchers through the process of obtaining patents and licensing their technology to companies to be commercialized, touts the success of researcher Mark Sussman. Within several weeks, the department was able to negotiate a deal to license Sussman’s stem cell-based cardiovascular technology to a start-up firm. The department was able to negotiate for better payment on the back-end of the deal to get it done more quickly.

SDSU is also funneling more of its research dollars — nearly half of its $100 million research budget last year — into projects that are more likely to yield new drugs or treatments, such as those underway at the BioScience Center.

Also, in fiscal year 2007-2008, SDSU researchers received nearly $131 million in grants and contracts, a 9.4 percent increase over the previous year’s total. And the college saw a $7 million increase in research awards from the National Institutes of Health.

Still, as far as research institutions go, UCSD is a tough act to follow. The university spends nearly $800 million annually on research and last year generated 373 new inventions, 64 patents and 85 license agreements. Its faculty and alumni have begun at least 193 local start-up companies, including more than one-third of the region’s biotechnology companies, and more than 500 active patents are currently held by the university.

Despite the statistics, the structure of the UC system sometimes makes it difficult to translate the groundbreaking research being done on campuses into new drugs, inventions or companies, said Bill Decker, associate director of the Technology Transfer and Intellectual Property Services at UCSD, which, like SDSU’s transfer department, helps researchers to move their findings into the private sector.

“There’s plenty of great stuff that is just sitting there, hung up in the process,” Decker said.

That’s because the two universities handle the original research findings or technologies developed on campus that can be commercialized for profit — known as intellectual property — very differently.

At SDSU, intellectual property rights are held by the Research Foundation administration, a nonprofit arm of the university that supports and funds research. Fostering the development and commercialization of campus innovations is made simpler because the foundation is located on campus and is able to work quickly and flexibly with researchers and investors, said Gail Naughton, dean of business administration and a biotech executive.

Also, SDSU students in all disciplines are offered entrepreneurial classes, which gives them the chance to create their own business with their creations, as an alternative to “just handing it off” to an investor, Naughton said.

And although SDSU doesn’t have the extensive research portfolio UCSD does, it’s advancing its entrepreneurial prowess by marketing its distinct areas of strength, namely psychology, cardiovascular disease and stem cells.

On the other hand, intellectual property at UCSD is mostly held by the UC Regents, a 26-member off-campus board not directly involved in research. That’s often a problem, Decker said, because it slows negotiations between the university and the private sector, making quick deals, such as Sussman’s at SDSU, rare.

“Things can move more quickly [at SDSU] because we’re not so bureaucratic,” Naughton said.

Decker declined to compare the two universities’ abilities to move research to the market, but said more of the decision making at UCSD and other UC campuses should be handed down to the local administrators, rather than the regents, to enable “more nimble” transactions with investors and the private sector. But he added a caveat about the danger of moving too far away from research, a concern many researchers have about becoming entrepreneurs.

“Sometimes the UC system puts too many burdens on researchers, yes. But sometimes those burdens are necessary so we remain a university, not a business,” Decker said, referring to UCSD’s research mission. “We’re still about research and academics, everything else is on the sideline.”

But even as SDSU makes strides towards becoming more research oriented, UCSD has been an integral part of the region’s science community and greater economy for more than 40 years, and its faculty and alumni are responsible for a lion’s share of the county’s start-up biotech companies and active patents.

UCSD and SDSU, which often collaborate on projects, have distinct missions under the Donahoe Higher Education Act, a document passed in 1960 by a special session of the California Master Plan for Higher Education that has been hailed as a masterful piece of education planning that revolutionized the state’s higher education system.

Essentially, the master plan gave the UC system the job of research and the CSU system, of which SDSU is a part, was given the primary mission of undergraduate education and graduate education through the master’s degree program. The California Community Colleges were given a primary role of providing academic and vocational instruction for lower division academic courses under the plan.

That mission hasn’t changed, according to representatives of CSU and SDSU, but there has certainly been a push at SDSU to bolster the entrepreneurial niche SDSU is beginning to fill in the region by incrementally increasing the amount of research its faculty and students perform and move to the private sector.

“There’s less of an ivory tower perspective, less red tape and more of a community philosophy at SDSU,” said Gottlieb, who left her job as a professor at the Scripps Research Institute last year to take the position at SDSU. “I’ve never got that sense anywhere else but I certainly see it here. It really resonates.”

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