We return to interviewing our local life science experts and leaders who are dedicated to accelerating Pittsburgh's position as a global life sciences hub. I am happy to share we are kicking-off the interview series with Nicole Oshurak, Director of Corporate Partnerships at Magee Women's Research Institute.
Life Science Pittsburgh: Can you share a brief introduction of yourself and Magee Women’s Research Institution?
Nicole: Sure. For the last 10 years I have helped nonprofits bridge industry partnerships primarily in philanthropic spaces - helping to get funding for things like cause marketing efforts and sponsorship dollars. MWRI reached out to me trying to open up the portfolio of industry partnerships. What I do with them is some in the philanthropic space, but mostly I'm helping to do some corporate sponsored research and bring industry into the fold for some sustained revenue streams.
As far as MWRI goes, it is the largest research institute in the country dedicated specifically to women's health and the reproductive biologies. So we cover everything from AIDS and HIV, to infertility, to breast and ovarian cancer. Then some of our most profound research is out of our nine to ninety space which is taking that first nine months of gestation and studying how it affects a person for the next ninety years of their life. What you see in the placenta after a child is born, we can now start to make some assumptions about early onset diabetes, heart disease, and those metabolic diseases, and what was showing as they were in utero. It’s a lot of what we built our inaugural summit around in October and I think is what gives us a lot of room to move forward in a way that a lot of other research institutes haven't really touched on.
LSP: Amazing! And a good lead-in – the summit was inspiring. Can you share some highlights for everyone else? How do the impacts continue?
Nicole: So, we have remained the largest women’s research institute in the country based on both size and NIH dollars but really still unheard of, and we wanted this summit to be the way that we put ourselves on the map and kind of put the stake in the ground as the world's leading experts in women's health and reproductive biologies. We partnered with RK Mellon and they have given us the funding to award the Million Dollar Magee Prize, which we will do every two years. This inaugural year we wanted that to be a beacon to get the best and the brightest from around the world to attend, apply for this award, and make the public acknowledgement that women's health is understudied, it's underfunded, and we need to start to shine a spotlight on that. We had over 500 attendees to the summit itself and 25 countries were represented. We had speakers from all over the country and all over the world coming to Pittsburgh to talk about what the future of women's health looks like from a national and international perspective.
As we move forward we will show where that million dollar prize sits and how that research is moving forward. I think it's the beginning of something really special here for Pittsburgh to put us on the map in women's health.
LSP: Yeah, here at InnovatePGH we’re interested in learning more about how MWRI is connecting Pittsburgh to the rest of the world. How do you see MWRI contributing to and growing our local economy through its research?
Nicole: So locally we're incredibly blessed that we bleed up through two giants in the region - our primary investigators are faculty at University of Pittsburgh and a lot of our PI's are also clinicians over at the hospital, which is of course part of UPMC. Internationally, our representation is significant. It's certainly not that everyone at MWRI is American or born and raised in this country, let alone locally. They have been trained all over the world and we partner with more than 20 different countries. But because women represent 51% of the global population, the work that we do touches all areas of the world from really challenged economies and women that lack education, lack healthcare, and lack all those sorts of resources. The Gates Foundation specifically sees that connection with low income populations in Africa, which is why they had funded us to bring scientists from low income countries in Africa to the summit to be represented and make sure that they could learn about the work that we're doing.
LSP: That's significant you were able to connect with them.
Nicole: Yeah it's been amazing. Michael Annichine and I attended Bio for the first time in Boston and we were blown away by how many people were trying to meet with us. From foundations, like the Gates Foundation, to industry partnerships, pharmaceutical companies, and device companies. I mean it has really sort of stretched the gamut as to how many people are really interested in women's health.
Just on the data alone, we have the largest ovarian cancer tissue bank in the world. We have our MOMI database, which is a database of almost 200,000 births that have come out of Magee since 1995 – it's by far the largest in the world of anything of its type. We have one of the largest breast cancer tissue banks in the world. So, if we are able to take that data and make that accessible outside of MWRI, I think that's what you'll start to see these partnerships become really significant.
LSP: It's interesting to learn about these big highlights. Do you have specific examples of collaboration with a specific academic institution, company, or a startup?
Nicole: Yes, so Hyagriv Simhan, MD is the head of our Maternal Fetal Medicine at Magee. He partnered with a group out of CMU headed up by Tamar Krishnamurti and together they developed an app that was piloted in Homewood to women who lacked access to doctors appointments via transportation, health insurance, or any reason they could not make it to the appointments. They developed an app that the women could download on their phone and input their symptoms every morning. There would be a team on at Magee that read their symptoms and sent a message back assuring that this is what you should be feeling in pregnancy at this point, or something's a little bit alarming. We partnered with Uber on the app and Uber would go pick them up, take them to the doctor's appointment, and then take them back home – all for free. There was a 99% compliance rate with that app in the test pilot group and it was able to not only check for any sort of alarming things in pregnancy, but also help with maternal mortality rates, infant mortality rates, and identify domestic partner violence. UPMC Enterprises is now going to fund a larger study to continue pushing this out.
LSP: That’s an impactful partnership. Do you see investors, VCs, or companies wanting to visit MWRI and come to Pittsburgh because of the work happening at Magee?
Nicole: Yeah, absolutely. We have pharmaceutical companies trying to work with us on an abundance of projects everywhere from reproductive health and infertility, to endometriosis, to ovarian cancer. Some companies are interested in breaking into women's health because it’s somewhat of an untapped market still. A large pharmaceutical company is partnering with us right now on some developments that we're doing in the HIV space out of Lisa Rohan's lab to approach the challenges in South Africa where condom negotiation is not an option - women can be violently assaulted if they insist on a condom. We’ve developed this Listerine-style strip that can be inserted into the vagina and dissolve so that the woman is protected from HIV for 48 hours, and without her partner ever knowing. And so I mean that's going to be a huge change in the way that we see AIDS and HIV develop in those regions.
Magee has depended almost entirely on NIH funding since we started back in the in the early 90’s. As we start to get more industry funding and build these partnerships to move things forward and get them in the market, I think that's when you'll start to see some big things out of Magee.
LSP: Wow. It’s incredible these discoveries are happening right here in Oakland. How will MWRI be participating in life sciences week 2019?
Nicole: It looks like Magee fits into all of the categories at Life Sciences Week like investments, corporate partnering, and AI. There’s no doubt that there is a reproductive health or women's health aspect to any one of those areas. We want to make sure that we're helping get speakers and getting our experts to the table to contribute to the conversation.