Sticking together–Epidermal Lipids and Research Collaborations


While a resident at Harvard (Massachusetts General Hospital) in Howard Baden’s lab I was assigned a research project studying human epidermal lipids using X-ray diffraction techniques. Pounds of scale that Howard Baden and Irwin Freedberg had collected from patients with erythroderma were extracted with chloroform and methanol over steam baths, and analyzed for lipids by various techniques. These studies culminated in a presentation to the Society for Investigative Dermatology in Atlantic City and publication in Nature; and the idea that a lifetime in the dermatological sciences would be so much fun was instilled.

I have retained a special interest in epidermal lipids. Recently, Iwai et al published a detailed study in JID using various physical, spectrographic, and imaging techniques to study lipids associated with the barrier. They present a new model of how cholesterol and ceramide sphingoids are arranged in the barrier to support its various functions. I will leave the details of the scientific results to the aficionados and concentrate instead on the organization and internationalization of science exemplified by this project.

The main players come from Northern Europe (Sweden, Norway, and the United Kingdom) and Japan, and there was close collaboration between researchers from Academia and Industry in a project that spanned a decade. Is a project of this long duration, involving individuals from multiple institutions and countries, the public (non-profit) sector and the for-profit sector the new norm? In the 75th Anniversary issue of JID, Bauer and Cohen and Parrish discuss increasing industrial and academic collaborations; these articles are required reading for those thinking about commercializing their scientific findings and collaborating with the for-profit sector. In the same issue, Uitto and Rodeck discuss the globalization of the research enterprise.

All institutions must address for themselves the advantages, disadvantages, and barriers to various collaborations. The role of confidentiality, protection of graduate students, and the role of intellectual property must all be considered. In addition, is there a convergence of interests, with academic institutions concerned about commercialization, spinning off companies, and fostering biotech incubators? Is that the best model and direction for academic institutions? What are the best models: for the academic institution, for the investigator?

Our scientific societies should encourage these discussions. Models should be explored, and the excellent – and disastrous — outcomes discussed. Yes, everyone likes to talk about successful collaborations, but failures require as much if not more consideration, even if the discussion is painful and difficult. Seeking profits and patents may complicate or even prevent frank discussions; is that the kind of environment that scientists in academia ultimately desire? These questions lack easy answers, but if they are never asked they will never be answered and the framework for best practices will not be established. Parrish’s article concludes with an important checklist of the institutional, personnel, and leadership issues to consider when beginning new collaborative endeavors. It deserves attention.

We encourage readers to comment on their experiences in this important interface between the for-profit and not-for-profit worlds.


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