Sara Shnider, our US Academic Innovation Lead, discusses how advancements in brain imaging, genetics, neural stem cell models, and AI are enabling groundbreaking personalized health interventions, bridging the gap between neuroscience research and real-world solutions, and her approach to collaborating with academic scientists to translate their breakthrough discoveries into impactful applications.
What excites you most about driving academic innovation in neuroscience, and how do you see CNS contributing to this effort?
Over the last decade, there has been tremendous scientific and technological progress in the neurosciences. Breakthroughs in genetics, advances in human stem cell models, and sophisticated technologies for monitoring brain activity, combined with integration of artificial intelligence (AI) approaches for data analysis, have moved us into a new era of deciphering this fascinating and complex organ that is the brain. Looking into the future, I am excited by all the possibilities of translating these scientific advances into new and effective solutions to treat devastating diseases and injuries to the nervous system.
I find it highly motivating to collaborate with academic scientists on transforming their cutting-edge discoveries into applications that can improve human health. Their creativity and scientific rigor as they push the boundaries of human knowledge is inspiring. However, the incentives in academia typically prioritize publication over commercialization and entrepreneurship, and there is a need to identify those high potential projects that with financial investment and mentorship can be developed into commercially viable products to benefit society.
CNS is contributing by taking a multi-pronged approach toward driving academic innovation by funding research, building companies, and investing in startup companies in the neurosciences. In some cases, CNS funds research within academia to help advance and mature technologies toward commercialization. In other cases, there is existing intellectual property (IP) available for licensing and CNS helps with incubating the companies as they develop their product and business plan, and provides support with strategic advisors and funding. CNS also has a more traditional VC role in funding early stage startup companies from pre-seed to Series A. By combining these approaches, CNS takes the long view and can also invest in efforts that need further research.
In your opinion, what are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities facing neuroscience today, and how can we work together to overcome them?
One of the greatest challenges in drug development for neurological disorders is patient heterogeneity. Patients are diagnosed into distinct disease classes, but in practice patient symptoms and disease progression are often highly variable. This makes it challenging not only to design clinical trials, but also to know which patients will respond to which intervention. In psychiatry in particular, finding the effective treatment typically involves a lengthy process of trial-and-error that prolongs patient suffering and increases costs. There is a recognized need to shift toward more nuanced biomarkers for diagnosing and subtyping patients based on disease mechanisms to enable development of personalized treatments. This is a transformation that the field of cancer therapeutics has undergone over the last 20 years, where treatments are now being tailored for each patient based on the genetic profiles of the tumor.
That being said, this is also an era of remarkable progress in genetics, brain imaging, and neural stem cell models derived from individual patients. When these tools are combined with powerful artificial intelligence approaches, it enables patient classification based on underlying disease mechanisms and brain circuitry, and opens the door to development of personalized interventions. One exciting example in the neurodegenerative disease space is the recent FDA approval of a drug to treat a genetically defined subset of people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. There are also exciting efforts in personalized psychiatry, using patient-derived stem cells and AI to predict which treatment will be most effective for each patient.
One avenue where I think the clinical and research communities could work together is to increase reporting of unsuccessful research studies and clinical trials. There is a need to incentivize sharing and publication of negative results, so that the stakeholders involved in developing new neuroscience solutions could learn from each others’ experiences and move faster toward successful results.
Another challenge has been the lack of representation of diverse populations in clinical research, albeit this is not a challenge unique to the neurosciences. According to data from the Food and Drug Administration, in 2020 75% of clinical trial participants were white, and the majority of clinical trial volunteers have historically been male. There is a need for more inclusive clinical studies to include more women, racial and ethnic minorities, and participants from diverse geographic and socio-economic backgrounds. In addition to being an ethical issue about health equity, diversity of clinical research participants is essential to determine safety and efficacy of therapeutic interventions across different populations. On this front, the boost toward remote clinical trials that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic has created a new opportunity for inclusivity. Leveraging wearables, sensors, and telehealth, it is now increasingly possible to broaden the participant population to include people who may not have easy access to clinical trial sites. Social media also provides an opportunity to increase patient engagement and access diverse communities for clinical trial recruitment. But of course, it is a gradual process and there is still so much more progress needed in this direction.
What made you want to pursue a career in life sciences, and how has your background prepared you for your role at CNS?
At this point it may be cliché’, but my interest in neurosciences started when I read “An Anthropologist on Mars” by the late Dr. Oliver Sacks. In The Case of the Colorblind Painter, he tells the touching story of an artist who needs to re-invent their identity at age sixty-five following a concussion that leaves them colorblind. I became fascinated by the complexity and mystery of the brain. Although it appears to be just another multicellular organ in our body, it is intricately tied to our identity, and when injury or illness disrupts brain function, it changes our personality and sense of self. I decided to pursue an undergraduate degree in biology with a focus on neuroscience, and a PhD in neurobiology. My research focused on elucidating how diverse neurons in the neocortex, the brain region responsible for most high-level cognitive functions, acquire their identity and specialized function during development.
Over the last 10+ years since graduating from my PhD, I have focused on translating innovative scientific discoveries into applications that can benefit patients through industry-academia partnerships. I have worked at both a large academic medical center and a global pharmaceutical company on strategic and operational aspects of collaborative research projects, as well as licensing and entrepreneurship programs. I look forward to leveraging this expertise to lead CNS’s efforts to develop new health solutions in the neurosciences by building a diverse portfolio of partnerships with academic investigators in the United States.
What strategies do you find most effective for driving progress in academic innovation (particularly in terms of translating research discoveries into real-world solutions)?
I believe that it is extremely valuable to have partnerships with stakeholders outside academia that intend to use and/or commercialize the technology. Having this perspective incorporated into the scientific direction early on can substantially accelerate progress toward commercialization of academic innovations. However, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach that works for situations. For some early stage projects with commercial potential, the most effective approach may be a short-term pilot grant to explore a novel approach, while a technology that is more developed but that requires further validation may best be served through a multi-year collaborative research project that includes a licensing agreement with a strategic investor. For some innovative projects, an incubator for launching a startup company might be the best launchpad.
That being said, there are some critical elements for successful commercialization of academic innovation. The partnerships need to be mutually beneficial. For example, academic investigators need to publish, while industry partners put a premium on confidentiality and profits. For successful research collaborations, all parties need to understand the incentives and objectives of their partners and yet still feel confident that their interests are being addressed. In addition, as in any team effort, the relationships are key. It is essential to have a perspective of building long term relationships and prioritize establishing trust between the partners. As relationships become more established, everyone becomes more invested in the project’s success.
Looking ahead to the future of neuroscience research, what do you think will be some of the most exciting developments in the field, and how can we ensure that these advances are used to benefit society?
There are some very exciting advances in technologies for imaging, tracking and modulating brain activity. One example is novel non-invasive neurostimulation approaches to alleviate severe depression in people who have tried multiple pharmacological interventions with no success. Over the next decade, I would hope to see a breakdown of the silos the pharmaceutical and medical device industries, and new solutions involving both drugs and devices that may in combination work better than either approach alone.
Another exciting area that is progressing rapidly is the field of brain-computer interface (BCI) technology, where a device records and analyzes brain activity and decodes it to control a robot or send commands to a computer. These technologies open a whole world of potential for people with limited mobility or loss of speech, such as in ALS. These BCI solutions are continuously improving, and I look forward to seeing how they are applied to increasingly help patients overcome disabilities due to injury or disease.
I believe investors play a meaningful role in steering scientific advances toward societal benefit. It is exciting to be part of a team that is driven by turning scientific discoveries into products that solve unmet needs in the neurosciences. I look forward to sharing more about our activities as we move forward with new projects and investments!