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Myelin Repair Foundation: Can You Fund A Clinical Trial $5 At A Time?

The Myelin Repair Foundation has made a name for itself by applying biotech-style business savvy to the world of nonprofit research. Unfortunately, the charity has also run into some biotech-style problems, specifically, difficulty finding a partner or funding to back its clinical trials.

MRF was launched in 2004 to study, as its name suggests, ways to repair myelin, the insulation surrounding nerves that is destroyed in patients with multiple sclerosis. Founder Scott Johnson, an MS patient himself, envisioned gathering the greatest scientific minds from competing universities and convincing them to work together toward a common goal -- all while running the business like, well, like a business.

He did it too: MRF has raised $35 million-- a respectable amount, by biotech standards -- and created research tools, discovered novel targets, filed patents, and advanced its lead compounds. Last summer, the nonprofit went on a biotech-style road show to shop its two lead programs around the biotech and pharma circuit, seeking a partner to advance the work into the clinic.

At the time, Johnson told the San Francisco Chronicle he was "very confident" of finding a partner. After all, the article reported, pipelines are dry, MRF's research was conducted according to pharma standards, and the foundation was more interested in advancing cures than driving a hard bargain.

But so far, no press releases trumpeting a deal have appeared on MRF's web site. The site only says the company is in "extensive relationship building with commercial drug development companies."

And last week, a friend forwarded me the following MRF email:

Back in April, we wrote to ask for your support to help fund a promising idea headed for a clinical trial. Our goal was to raise $100K by June 30.

So far we have raised only $5,721. That is less than 6 percent of our goal. We need your help to raise awareness and to encourage all your friends, family and colleagues to donate $10, $20, $50 or more to the campaign.

It's unfortunate that even such an innovative organization is not immune from the economic hardships plaguing the biotech industry. But if anyone can fund a clinical trial $5 at a time, it's the MRF. And if they succeed, maybe biotech will take a page out of their book and start looking at angel and retail investors in a whole new light.
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