CTSA Profile: A Predilection for Translation

Bruce Sullenger, PhD, director of Duke Translational Research Institute

November 24, 2015

Bruce Sullenger says he’s hardwired to be a translational scientist. “I’ve always wanted to figure out how to use knowledge for practical purposes,” says Sullenger, the Joseph and Dorothy Beard Professor of Surgery and director of the Duke Translational Research Institute. “I want to make things and then give them legs to get outside of the university.”

Here, in his own words, is a bit more about Sullenger’s predilection for translation.


What was your first job at Duke?

Duke hired me 21 years ago to do what is now called translational research. I’m not a surgeon – I have a PhD in molecular biology from Cornell Medical School. But Surgery wanted people who could use knowledge from fundamental biomedical research to address medical issues. Back then, we called it ‘experimental surgery’. Now we call it ‘surgical sciences.’


What are your basic science interests?

I’ve always been interested in the interface of molecular medicine and health. Gene therapy to combat HIV was an early interest, which is why I studied at the Medical College of Cornell. I did my post-doc at the University of Colorado in Boulder with Tom Cech, who received the Nobel Prize in 1989 for his discovery of the catalytic properties of RNA. That’s where I developed an interest in using what we are learning about RNA to combat disease. But I’ve always wanted to figure out how to use knowledge for practical purposes. Many scientists go into a lab and say “that’s interesting.” I go in and say “how can we use this?” I think I’m just hardwired that way. What has been wonderful at Duke is to be in an ecosystem where this kind of thinking is encouraged. That’s what groups like the Duke Translational Research Institute are set up to nurture.


What is your role as the director of the DTRI?

The DTRI exists to organize resources and programs that we have on campus that will facilitate the discovery, invention, development and translational of new knowledge into improved patient care. We are trying to accelerate the movement of new knowledge into something that will make a difference. We do that through different mechanisms, including funding, project management, and connections to pockets of expertise across the University.


You’ve travelled the path of translation yourself, moving several ideas from bench to business. What’s that been like?

It has shown me that it is a long, unpredictable journey. I’ve helped start four companies: ARGOS is the oldest, and it is now doing Phase III trials for a cancer vaccine using dendritic cells. REGADO is the second oldest. It got started in 2001 to develop a technology using RNA aptamars to create an anti-coagulant than can be easily reversed. Roche backed a third company, focused on targeting tumor cells with aptamar compounds, but when they bought Genentech, they pulled out, and the business went under. And I have recently been involved with incorporating a new company that is developing the therapeutic value of nucleic acid scavengers.


What keeps you trying?

I want to give things that I make legs to get them outside of the university. If we really want to make a difference, we have to work with the private sector. It is a critical piece of translation.


In your experience, what kind of team does it take to successfully move an idea out of the bench into the world?

I can’t even begin to add up all the people it takes. In my case, each idea that ended up in a business started out because I was in conversations with clinicians who told me what their clinical needs were. But even with a great lab team and a great idea, you need people who can help you with animal studies, and others to help with regulatory studies and manufacturing medicines under the high standards that are acceptable required to use in humans. You need people who can run clinical trials, and who can monitor grants. These are resources that DTRI can help mobilize at Duke. But even if you align all these things, it will only take you so far. It takes millions of dollars to move a medicine or therapy through clinical trials, and you have to come up with it by working with philanthropy, grants, licensing, or finding investors for a new company. That’s where groups like business development and the Office of Licensing and Ventures are so important. It truly takes a multi-faceted team to move an idea forward.


In the 21 years you’ve been at Duke, what has changed?

One of the biggest impacts has been the decreasing funds for research. With clinical margins shrinking and NIH funding flat or declining in terms of real purchasing power, we have to look more broadly for resources. Everyone is running toward the private sector and toward innovation because of the challenges of shrinking resources. As a result, competition for translational researchers is now fierce. When I started at Duke, people who have my natural predilection for translation were unusual. Now, everyone loves what we are doing.


When you aren’t at Duke, how do you spend your time?

I have two high-school-aged daughters who are doing very well at academics and sports, so we spend a lot of time with them. I also am a huge fan of Duke Basketball, and I have a long-standing interest in old cars. I am the proud owner of a 1968 Pontiac GTO that brings back memories of the first car I ever owned—a 1970 GTO. When I was younger, I enjoyed working on old cars. Now I just enjoy owning one and occasionally taking it for a drive.


What was the last movie you saw?

I went to see “Martian” with my wife. I really enjoyed it because it used logic and science for survival.


What is the most exciting part of your daily work?

Working with my students to push the frontier of knowledge and think about how we can use it. My lab has about 15 students, postdocs, and staff, and for each project we have a clinician partner so we can more easily figure out if what we are making will work for patients.

I am also really enjoying being involved with the Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative at Duke. When Eric Toone offered me the position of head of strategy for translation, I jumped at the chance because I think they are focusing on a critical piece of translation – how do you wrap the real world around an idea so that you can develop a product that can be distributed to lots of people? If we want Duke to be a leader in translational medicine, we need this kind of entrepreneurial spirit. We need to have a larger eco-system than what exists inside the university.