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October 3, 2011

Poised for Impact

Scientist and TED Fellow Nina Tandon ’12 (EMBA) plans to translate scientific breakthroughs in the lab into world-changing clinical remedies — and nurture the innovation economy along the way.

Simone Gubar

The talk Nina Tandon ’12 (EMBA) delivered at the annual TED Conference in Long Beach, CA, in March was only four minutes long, but the conversations it inspired are ongoing.

Tandon is talking to biochemist and fashion designer Suzanne Lee about applying electrical signals to the bacteria Lee uses to make clothing — “for a smoother texture,” Tandon explains. With Future Food star and “molecular gastronomist” Homaro Cantu, Tandon is talking about growing “ethical meat” in the lab. And with ecological designer Mitch Joachim, she is talking about organic architecture — eco-friendly buildings built from lab-grown cardiac tissues.

Then there are the conversations with venture capitalists and seed funders who were so impressed by Tandon’s talk that they visited her in the lab to learn more about her work.

If Tandon could do it again, she says, she’d conclude her TED talk with a quick demo of how to extract DNA from a strawberry. “It only takes three minutes,” she says animatedly amid the petri dishes, microscopes, and jars full of multi-colored solutions at Columbia’s Laboratory for Stem Cells and Tissue Engineering. It’s that infectious enthusiasm that probably led a little boy named Zack — a participant in a science camp for underprivileged kids in Lynn, MA, that Tandon co-taught last summer — to proclaim, “DNA looks like boogers!” “Hearing that made my heart explode in joy,” Tandon says. “Once these kids actually saw DNA, they were able to have high-level debates about the use of DNA evidence in trials.”

The lab experiments Tandon and fellow researchers are running on tissue engineering — the creation of living human tissues — are infinitely more complex than extracting DNA from a strawberry. But it is that passion for translating science into something that can be understood and put to use outside the lab that has led Tandon to Columbia Business School, where she is a third-semester student in the School’s Executive MBA Program.

Tissue engineering is part of the broader and relatively young field of regenerative medicine, which uses patients’ own cells to grow customized replacement tissues and organs. Scientists ultimately hope to eliminate both the organ shortage and the use of risky immunosuppressant drugs that are typically administered following transplants. Simple tissues like skin and bone have already been regrown and transplanted, and in 2006, the first lab-grown bladders were successfully transplanted.

The sheer complexity of human organs means that the field is remarkably interdisciplinary. Tandon, who holds a PhD from Columbia in biomedical engineering, works regularly with biotechnologists, chemical and mechanical engineers, cell biologists, and medical doctors. Under the direction of Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, a professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, Tandon is growing cardiac tissue using electrical stimulation. “The idea is to be able to make a little patch, or Band-Aid, that can cover the wound of a damaged heart after a heart attack,” says Tandon.

Tandon also hopes to be part of an effort to commercialize anatomically correct bone grafts that the lab is beginning to test in pigs. In the February issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vunjak-Novakovic reported that her team had grown one of the small bones of the jaw — the temporomandibular joint (TMJ)  — using stem cells. The bone could be grown to order in the lab so that it is a perfect fit  — a more reliable and less invasive solution for those who suffer from TMJ disorders than current bone grafts, which use bone from other parts of the body or materials like titanium.

Scientific breakthroughs in the lab are nothing new, especially at Columbia, whose researchers patent more than 300 inventions a year, bringing in more than $100 million annually in intellectual property revenues. But putting these discoveries into practice — what is increasingly referred to as translational medicine — is a path that is paved with uncertainty and, often, failure. “What’s clear to me,” says Tandon, “is that we need people at the table who are bilingual in science and business.”

An Electric Calling

Tandon has always been fascinated by the electricity of the body. In college at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, where she now teaches a course on bioelectricity, she built a theramin — a musical instrument controlled by antennae that react to impulses created by the movement of the performer’s hands. While working in telecom after college, Tandon took a class at a local community college in physiology “for fun.” “When we were learning about DNA,” she says, “I was like, ‘it’s a hard disk!’ They would say, ‘and this is how nerves store voltage,’ and I was like, ‘wow, it looks exactly like telephone cables!’ I started seeing all these parallels, and I knew I needed to go to grad school.”

After working with scientists to develop an “electric nose” used to “smell” lung cancer on a Fulbright in Rome, Tandon earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering at MIT, where she worked in the lab of the legendary Robert Langer, who has more than 750 patents in tissue engineering and drug delivery systems issued or pending. When Tandon saw cardiac cells “dance” to electrical stimulation, she was spellbound. “I remember hooking them up to my stimulator circuit,” Tandon says, “and as I turned the dial to increase the frequency, they moved to the beat!”

As a woman in electrical engineering, where women make up less than 10 percent of the profession, Tandon also felt a sense of responsibility. She recalls her parents’ advice: “They said that as a woman you have an obligation to study in a technical field if you have an aptitude for it, because there are so few role models. It stuck with me, and to this day I take mentorship very seriously.”

There may be relatively few female electrical engineers, but there are even fewer women at the helm of biotech companies, as Tandon discovered when she began working as a consultant at McKinsey after finishing her PhD in biomedical engineering. “I was hungry to learn about the wider world of healthcare research and innovation beyond the lab,” says Tandon, who hopes to join the ranks of women who occupy the dual role of research scientist and executive.

When she fell in love with science again “from the outside,” it was with a renewed passion for entrepreneurship. “The EMBA Program was a major part of my decision to return to the lab,” she says, adding (with a scientist’s precision) that by the time she finishes the program she hopes to have gotten “some delta closer” to starting a company.

Navigating the Valley of Death

Even though some of the world’s most successful scientific innovations have emerged from academia (take the MRI machine, which was developed and brought to market in the 1970s by SUNY Downstate professor Raymond Damadian), early-stage biomedical research is so notoriously difficult to fund that it has been dubbed the “valley of death.”

Potential investors often perceive the research as too risky. “Entrepreneurs need to convince skeptical investors that the technology can generate revenue within a reasonable time frame at a cost that provides some level of assurance that an investor will get a multiple on the investment — especially difficult today given the myriad of technological, regulatory, and economic risks,” says Cliff Cramer, director of the School’s Healthcare and Pharmaceutical Management Program.

In preparation for translational studies related to their grant from BioAccelerate NYC, a citywide competition that supports promising, early-stage biomedical research, Tandon and Vunjak-Novakovic met with Robert Essner, the former CEO of Wyeth and an executive in residence at the School, to discuss their potential bone product. Something of a legend for driving innovation at Wyeth — he led the company’s introduction of the only vaccine against meningitis in young children, among many other successes — Essner advised Tandon and Vunjak-Novakovic on the commercialization process.

Essner also talked about the synergy that often results when marketing experts connect with scientists. “When you connect scientists with people who have this great understanding of where a potential therapy might fit into medicine if it were on the market, that creates tremendous value that might not have occurred if the drug had been developed by scientists for regulatory approval,” Essner says. He cites the case of the antidepressant Effexor, which came to market first as a three-dose-a-day drug for significantly depressed patients but was then “recrafted” — with remarkable success — using insights from Wyeth’s marketing arm as a once-a-day drug, Effexor XR, which is useful for more typical depressed patients.

Tandon also sees value in honing her ability to be decisive in the face of difficult choices. “Scientists are often very concerned with incremental knowledge,” she says, “whereas a good business person will have a higher level of comfort with uncertainty and will be able to make complex choices decisively.”

Looking back, Tandon has realized that scientists aren’t trained to think entrepreneurially. “When I was younger it rarely occurred to me that an idea could be worth patenting,” says Tandon. “This is one of the things I always find myself harping on now as a scientist who is interested in scientific-based entrepreneurship.”

With many cancer diagnosis rates increasing and heart disease still killing more people than all cancers combined, it has perhaps never been so critical to streamline the biotech start-up process. Even at Columbia, where ties between the lab and the market have always been strong, there is an upswing. “We see a significant amount of interest from academics with translational technology who want to see their inventions change people’s lives for the better,” says Orin Herskowitz, executive director of Columbia Technology Ventures, which helps facilitate the translation of the University’s academic research into practical applications.

“The real challenge lies in creating institutions that support scientists and nurture two transformations,” says Tandon. “Turning the scientist into a leader and the discovery into something that can be applied to solve a problem.” While this means finding ways to ensure that academic success doesn’t just depend on publishing but also on societal impact, says Tandon, it also means translating technical scientific language into something widely understood that can spark excitement and collaboration.

A Grey’s Anatomy fan, Tandon was amused when Dr. Callie Torres, the character on the show played by Sara Ramírez, grew cartilage in a single episode. (“My friend Grace has been working on this for 10 years,” says Tandon. “I told her that she needs to hurry up!”) Tandon sent Ramírez an invitation via e-mail to her TED talk, and although Ramíriz wasn’t able to attend, she responded immediately. The exchange got Tandon thinking about creating a panel for her bioelectricity class made up of scientists in translational medicine and the actors on TV who play doctors using their breakthrough products.

“We have a very similar challenge,” she says. “Translating the work for our next audience.”

If Grey’s Anatomy or House producers are on the lookout for new ideas, that’s another collaboration Tandon is thinking about; she’d love to serve as a consultant to the shows.

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