Johns Hopkins exemplifies new breed of corporate-academic partnerships

July 25, 2001

A new kind of research alliance is emerging between corporations and academic centers. Partnerships are replacing simpler agreements under which academic luminaries would test-drive equipment. Rather than taking what they get and doing the best they can

A new kind of research alliance is emerging between corporations and academic centers. Partnerships are replacing simpler agreements under which academic luminaries would test-drive equipment. Rather than taking what they get and doing the best they can with it, the world’s star practitioners are helping to tweak, refine, even direct the development of new systems.

Johns Hopkins University got in front of the curve in 1998, forging a deal with GE Medical Systems to develop a new MR scanner. Under the leadership of Dr. Elias Zerhouni, radiology chair at Hopkins, engineers from GE took up residence at the medical center, joining a multidisciplinary team composed mostly of Hopkins staff, to evaluate clinical and technical aspects of the new machine.

At that time, such close contact between researchers and company reps was unprecedented. Today, such collaborations are increasingly common. And it’s not a lack of research money that is prompting academic sites to take this route, Zerhouni said. Research funds from federal organizations such as the National Institutes of Health have actually increased in recent years.

“It’s the complexity of new imaging technologies, which demands teams of 10 or 12 people to fully evaluate them,” he said. “No one institution-or company-has that kind of expertise on hand.”

It used to be that companies conducted R&D at remote facilities under strict nondisclosure agreements, working on new tools that could have benefited from regular input by radiologists. Word about developments is now going out much more openly, and that has helped the flow of communication and speeded progress.

“With these new partnerships, the product cycle is shortened, because we are all working together to test ideas,” Zerhouni said. “In the past it was typical to have a piece of equipment on site, forward an idea about using it, and then have to wait three months for a response. Before you know it, a year would have gone by, and we would not be much further along than when we started.”

That first successful foray into collaborative partnering has become a model that Zerhouni has replicated with other companies, including Siemens and Toshiba, as well as continuing Hopkins’ relationship with GE.

In June, Hopkins announced the establishment of a joint research project in interventional radiology with Toshiba. The project will focus initially on minimally invasive procedures in CT fluoroscopy using Toshiba’s Aquilion CT unit.

“The long-term goal is to find the optimal configuration and workflow for neurointerventional radiology,” Zerhouni said. “How can these techniques best be applied? What is the best way of providing image-guided interventions in the heart and brain? A large part of this joint project is developing a vision for these procedures, and how they can move from the research phase to clinical practice.”

Such collaborations would appear to be win-win, with both sides benefiting equally, but that doesn’t obviate the need for up-front negotiation, Zerhouni said. It’s important for each partner to understand the expectations of the other.

As the newly named chair of radiology at Hopkins back in 1996, Zerhouni said a primary goal of his tenure would be to elevate the role of radiology in medicine. In the years since, he’s made progress in keeping that promise.

Imaging services at Hopkins have been redesigned to reflect the ubiquitous role imaging plays in medical practice. Both the emergency department and the neurosurgery division now have radiology components, including imaging equipment and reading areas. Zerhouni has also created a high-profile molecular imaging division at Hopkins, an area of research that he believes holds dramatic potential for radiology. And the department has honed its expertise in image-guided interventions.

“In all of these areas, corporate partnerships have played a large role in helping us realize our goals as a department,” he said.

With this track record and its reputation as an academic center of excellence, Hopkins has had no trouble attracting corporate partners. But unlike agreements of the past, the new brand of partnership requires more than just a signature on the dotted line.

“Lots of companies want to work with us,” he said. “But this is not an administrative kind of deal, where you sign the paper and it’s done. There is a human dimension to this that goes beyond selling new equipment. This is an ongoing relationship. It needs substance.”