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Shripad Bhagwat, PhD, a drug development expert with decades of experience in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, has been named the inaugural senior director of the Needleman Program for Innovation and Commercialization (NPIC) at Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to his role as senior director, Bhagwat has a research-track professor appointment in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics. He began in his new positions in August.

The Needleman Program for Innovation and Commercialization was established earlier this year to provide critical funding to researchers to speed the development of promising therapeutics into clinical trials. Traditionally, it has been difficult to advance potential drug candidates identified in the laboratory into early-stage clinical trials, because this work requires substantial funding not available through the traditional sources. Further, academic institutions often lack faculty and staff who are trained in the many aspects of drug development.

“Dr. Bhagwat brings tremendous knowledge and experience in drug development from his successful career in industry, making him an exceptional choice to lead the new Needleman Program in Innovation and Commercialization,” said David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs, the George and Carol Bauer Dean of the School of Medicine, and the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor. “Innovation and commercialization are major priorities for the medical school and the university as a whole. This program will encourage the urgent development of new and lifesaving therapeutics, and we are delighted that Dr. Bhagwat will be supporting our campaign to boost research that advances WashU-generated therapeutics for the benefit of patients.”

The program is supported by a $15 million commitment from Philip and Sima Needleman, longtime benefactors of Washington University. Philip Needleman, PhD, a former executive at the pharmaceutical companies Monsanto, Searle and Pharmacia, has a long history with Washington University, arriving at the School of Medicine in 1964 as a postdoctoral fellow. He later joined the faculty of the former Department of Pharmacology and then led that department from 1976-89. During his time at Washington University, he discovered an enzyme, COX-2, that plays a key role in pain and inflammation due to arthritis. He also identified an inhibitor of COX-2 that showed therapeutic potential.

To further this research, Needleman moved into industry, joining Monsanto as chief scientist in 1989 and leading the development of a COX-2 inhibitor, which was approved in 1998 as the drug Celebrex. The blockbuster nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug has been prescribed to millions of people as a treatment for osteoarthritis; rheumatoid arthritis in adults and children; ankylosing spondylitis, a type of arthritis that causes inflammation in the ligaments and joints of the spine; and to manage acute pain.

“Washington University researchers are making tremendous new discoveries that have the potential to transform patients’ lives, and this new program is intended to help more of these discoveries reach the clinic,” Needleman said. “We are excited to have Dr. Bhagwat leading this new initiative to take therapeutic targets from their earliest discovery stages to the point where they can be tested in clinical trials. He’s worked with small startups, big pharma companies, as well as academia, and he has experience with a variety of drug candidates, including small molecule drugs and proteins. He understands the criteria necessary to identify and develop a good drug candidate and move it through the process to get regulatory approvals.”

Bhagwat comes to Washington University after an extensive 40-year career in drug development, where he helped discover promising drug candidates that progressed into clinical trials. He has a history of collaborations with colleagues in academia and has experience in many therapeutic areas, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, virology, neuroscience and rare genetic diseases.

Most recently, Bhagwat served as the chief scientific officer at the biotechnology company AltiBio Inc. There, he oversaw discovery and preclinical development programs focused on rare genetic diseases. Previously, Bhagwat was the vice president of drug discovery at BioMarin Pharmaceutical Inc. Under his management, research teams in the small molecule and oligonucleotide discovery programs identified several drug candidates.

Bhagwat also served as senior vice president of drug discovery and preclinical development at Ambit Biosciences. His leadership enabled Ambit’s drug discovery group to identify four drug candidates, with the most advanced compound, Quizartinib (AC220, Vanflyta), approved in the U.S. and Japan for the treatment of acute myeloid leukemia. During his time at Signal Pharmaceuticals, Bhagwat served as vice president of drug discovery and supervised multiple drug discovery programs in cancer and inflammation. There, he helped identify six drug candidates, two of which advanced to clinical development.

“It is an honor to be selected for this new and exciting role,” Bhagwat said. “I look forward to working with WashU investigators to help accelerate the development of new therapeutics first identified by the innovative research being conducted here. I am delighted to take charge of progressing the cutting-edge research conducted at WashU to advanced stages of drug discovery and development which will command higher valuation and ownership for the university when partnered out or spun off into a startup biotech company.”

The Needleman program will provide infrastructure similar to a typical startup company, including project management, financial support, external drug development funding, as well as mentoring in business and intellectual property management. The program builds on funding programs designed to support the earlier discovery-phase drug development research provided through close connections with the Washington University Center for Drug Discovery and Office of Technology Management.

The program, launched in February, recently collected its first round of proposals from WashU investigators. “We’re excited to be so well positioned to advance drug development from our research labs into promising clinical drug candidates that have the potential to become new therapeutics,” said Dedric A. Carter, PhD, vice chancellor for innovation & chief commercialization officer. “With Shripad, we are welcoming a skilled biopharma leader. His work will help to unlock the next level of enhanced drug discovery efforts at Washington University.”

The program is expected to announce the first funding awards this fall.

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