The Hackensack Meridian Health Center for Discovery and Innovation was established in 2019 as an academic biomedical research institute focused on rapidly translating scientific advances into clinical therapies. Its work centers on addressing unmet medical needs for patients with cancer, infectious diseases and immunologic, behavioral and neurodegenerative disorders. CDI’s campus includes 27 labs employing 180 scientists and support staff, with an operating budget of approximately $52 million funded by 85 grants and contracts, including 58 grants from the National Institutes of Health. David Perlin, chief scientific officer and executive vice president, discusses some of CDI’s successful initiatives and how researchers continue to get it done.
Additional laboratories are opening at the center. How will the expansion support specific research?
The newly renovated 20,000 square feet, which brings the facility to a total of 128,000 square feet of state-of-the-art research space, consolidates a growing applied immunotherapy and cancer biology program comprising nine laboratories, with ongoing recruitment of new labs. An additional 20,000 square feet has also begun to house CDI’s new Cancer Prevention Precision and Control Institute and a new Biosafety Level 3 containment laboratory dedicated to developing new drugs against high-threat viruses.
What’s the relationship between CDI and Hackensack Meridian Health’s clinical work?
CDI is focused on developing clinical solutions in the form of novel diagnostics, therapeutics and preventions. This requires CDI scientists and health system clinicians to work closely to do a “deep dive” on specific diseases and develop approaches to improve clinical outcomes, either by refining or improving an existing standard of care or creating a new one.
Please describe some research that quickly advanced from the labs to clinical implementation.
At the very onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, CDI developed and rolled out in the span of three months one of the first RT-PCR tests under the Food and Drug Administration emergency use authorization for a health system. It was used to diagnose more than 25,000 patients early on (and 1 million more following successful licensing). The scientists also developed one of the first convalescent plasma programs to treat COVID patients, with about a 90% success rate in preventing severe disease. The center also created a high-throughput rapid technology to identify virus variants that, in partnership with Quest Diagnostics and the New Jersey Health Department, provided real-time evaluation of the virus landscape in the state. And CDI is now working with clinicians on the next generation of cell-based immunotherapies for cancer. It already has several mature drug candidates against bacterial infections that are in preclinical development.
Artificial intelligence is making headlines for its expanding potential in healthcare. How is it being applied at CDI?
A.I. is used routinely to unravel complex biological systems and identify potential targets for intervention. It is also being used to interrogate large clinical databases ... to identify new biomarkers (genetic, epigenetic, protein, lipid, immunologic, among others) that correlate with progression of disease and response to therapy. It is part of a precision medicine approach to disease management: treat people, not statistics.
What role do private companies play in CDI’s work?
Commercial partnerships are a key ingredient in CDI’s ability to deliver science innovation most effectively to the clinical setting. CDI scientists are focused on discovery and early-stage development of diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines and other interventions. But it is the partnerships with pharma, biotech, diagnostic and device manufacturers that bring the discoveries to life in a sustainable way. CDI partners with clinicians and industry early in the discovery and development process. Indeed, historic silos separating academic scientists, clinicians and industry, which impede innovation and rapid development, have been collapsed at CDI into a common discovery ecosystem.