Adler Shares Ups and Downs of Research Journey

Ken Adler works in his lab in the College of Veterinary Medicine. Photo by Roger Winstead.

In a career spanning more than four decades, cell biologist Kenneth Adler has had his share of success, from groundbreaking discoveries targeting severe respiratory diseases and cancer to top honors for entrepreneurship and innovation. He’s published more than 100 papers in peer-reviewed journals, scored millions of dollars in research grants, founded a startup and received the O. Max Gardner Award, the university system’s highest faculty honor for advancing the “welfare of the human race.”

In a talk sponsored by NC State’s Office of Technology Commercialization and New Ventures this week, Adler took the opportunity to share some of the disappointments and challenges he’s faced – cautionary tales for younger faculty colleagues and students just beginning the journey.

“It’s been a fun ride with lot of twists and lot of turns along the way,” he told the audience in the Hunt Library. “I’ve learned a lot of lessons. The main thing is to be prepared.”

Starting with a recap of his most recent research discovery, a peptide that inhibits the spread of lung cancer in mice, Adler presented a series of flashbacks from his career illustrating some of the pitfalls he’s encountered.

There was the time a company commercialized one of his ideas without offering him compensation – or even credit. The lesson: don’t publicize your work until you’ve filed an invention disclosure. “Protect your intellectual property,” he said.

Another time investors balked at funding clinical trials even though they were interested in the potential product, a drug to reduce inflammation in the lungs. Lesson No. 2: dealing with industry can be problematic.

The third lesson, Adler explained, was the result of his attempt to obtain a patent related to the anti-inflammatory properties of a peptide. The application was rejected based on a misreading of a sentence in one of his research papers. “The patent office can be totally irrational,” he said, shaking his head. “Don’t look for rational behavior from the patent office.”

The final lesson concluded the talk on a more positive note. Adler explained how he was able to convince the National Institutes of Health to change the focus of a $1.2 million grant it had awarded him for the study of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He sent the agency a video showing how laboratory mice with acute respiratory distress syndrome – a different, often fatal lung ailment – improved just hours after receiving an aerosol treatment he had developed. Thanks to the NIH funding, the treatment is now undergoing Phase IIA clinical trials.

The takeaway, Adler said: “You never know until you try.”

Events such as Adler’s talk are part of an ongoing effort by the Office of Technology Commercialization and New Ventures to create networking and educational opportunities for industry partners, entrepreneurs and members of the campus community.

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