Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Dr. Meri Firpo's mission to bring stem cell-based diabetes therapies to patients

Meri Firpo, PhD

Dr. Meri Firpo is an Assistant Professor in the Stem Cell Institute and the Department of Medicine and Division of Endocrinology at the University of Minnesota, where she works on stem cell biology, and transplantation therapies for diabetes using human pluripotent stem cells. Dr. Firpo has participated in a number of MIN-Corps programs with the goal of bridging the gap between her research-driven breakthroughs concerning diabetes treatment and actually providing this treatment to patients.

Tell me about your journey both personally and academically that has led you to focus on developing stem cell-based therapies for diabetes.

My interest in doing research is for discoveries that have real applications for humans. For this reason, I did my graduate work in a Cancer hospital, and through a medical school. My research interest has always been in stem cells, since the process of differentiation from stem cells to functional cells is so similar to human development, and has a big role in the cause of disease, and for disease cures. When I was in grad school, the only scientists doing systematic work with clinical goals were bone marrow transplant researchers. Over the years, this has expanded to so many stem cell types and diseases, that stem cell research is everywhere now. As the field grew, I was recruited to help find a stem cell transplant cure for diabetes similar to a bone marrow transplant. This is the major focus of my work since then.

What is the biggest challenge you've encountered in this endeavor, and how did you move past it?

Like most people, I thought that just demonstrating a stem cell product could cure diabetes was enough to get started with clinical trials and FDA approval. In fact, very few basic research findings get to the clinic because there is a gap in the sources of funding required to get FDA approved therapies, and in the knowledge of basic researchers of what is required to progress to that stage. I am still working on these challenges, but talking with people in industry has been very helpful. I applied to the MNReach award program to get funding for my translational work, but the coaching and access to industry experts has been incredibly helpful.

What role has the overall MN-REACH program and the MIN-Corps workshops played in the process of transforming your groundbreaking diabetes research into a market-ready, commercializable solution?

Working on a cure for diabetes at a scientific level is a whole different world from starting a business. It was surprising how different the terminology and goals for the work of commercialization are from my normal work. MIN-Corps workshops and activities have been a great help in learning new tools. They opened my eyes to things I have never thought about before, and how much I need to know about business plans and building the best team.

Watch Meri speak about why research means hope: