Innovative atmosphere: Why Perlin feels CDI can help N.J. reclaim role as leader in medical research, discovery

By Tom Bergeron
Nutley/Clifton | May 30, 2019 at 9:36 am
Editor’s Desk

It’s nice to talk about innovation — discoveries that can change the way diseases are battled.

It’s better to be able to show just how you are doing that.

It’s why Dr. David Perlin, chief scientific officer at the Center for Discovery and Innovation, a state-of-the-art research facility in Nutley and Clifton that is the latest gem in the ever-growing Hackensack Meridian Health health care juggernaut, is beaming when he is talking about the Maldi Mass Spec Imager.

“We’re one of the very few that has this very high-end piece of equipment that’s really critical for being able to understand our drugs getting to where they need to be,” he said.

“Often, what we do is give a drug to a patient, and we assume it’s getting where it needs to, but we’re not always sure. And sometimes it doesn’t get to the patient at the concentration or a level of drug that you want, and sometimes you develop drug resistance.

“So, what we’re trying to do, is (learn how) to optimize therapies, to understand, are the drugs getting to where they need to be at the level we want them to be at? We’re studying that for a wide range of diseases, like tuberculosis, for other types of pneumonias, for cancers. And we do it for existing drugs as well as for drugs that are in development that are in clinical trials.”

They are doing it on one of the top floors of CDI, a modern institute that is housed in the same building that once held the famed Roche Institute for Molecular Biology, where so many modern medical discoveries got their start.

The institute, which Perlin said began aggressively filling its staff last December, has 13 labs and approximately 80 scientists now — numbers, he said, that will grow to 16 and more than 100 by the end of the year.

If New Jersey is going to reclaim its place atop the life science and medical research world — if it truly is going to recapture the innovative economy that Gov. Phil Murphy has been aiming for since he began campaigning for the job he now holds — it will use places such as CDI as its biggest calling card.

It’s why Perlin, a highly acclaimed scientist and researcher in the field of infectious disease who recently was awarded a $33 million grant by the National Institutes of Health, was recruited to lead CDI from Rutgers University, where he led the Public Health Research Institute.

Hackensack Meridian officials feel CDI has everything it needs to compete with the giants in the field, including facilities at Johns Hopkins, Duke, Cambridge and elsewhere.

The Maldi Mass Spec Imager is one of those reasons.

Perlin said the machine costs $1.3 million. If you can get one. He estimates only a half-dozen have been produced.

“This is state of the art and one of our prize instruments,” he said. “There are many folks that are jealous that we have this.”

Of course, having cool toys is one thing. Using them to make new discoveries — and creating an atmosphere in which discoveries happen — is another.

The machine, Perlin said, does not produce the million-dollar grants that are the lifeblood of research. The environment at the facility does.

“It’s never easy to get money,” he told ROI-NJ. “You have to be really innovative and you have to be inspired. And this environment helps create that inspiration, in the sense that it allows you to think freely and openly and creatively.

“When you bring together clinicians and you bring together the clinical community, where you see patients and you understand what they’re about and you understand the disease, it allows your innovation and your intuitions to move more freely. That, to me, is what spurs funding. It’s not necessarily just a facility or an operation or lots of very high-end instrumentation. It is all about the innovation and how you apply that innovation.”

Hackensack CEO Bob Garrett and Dr. Andrew Pecora, who envisioned this facility more than a decade ago, wanted it to not only compete against other famed research facilities, but be able to top them.

Perlin said they have created an atmosphere that will allow CDI to do just that.

“To have the opportunity to take the innovations in science and move them into the clinic and have an organization that absolutely covets that, is just fantastic,” he said. “They’re supporting us with infrastructure and they’re supporting us with funds, but, mostly, it’s they want innovation and they want innovation to work for patients.

“I’ve worked most of my professional life taking molecular science and applying it in the clinic. And now we have a forum to be able to do this in real time with just fantastic facilities and world-class researchers. It’s absolutely fantastic.”

Its potential impact on New Jersey cannot be overstated, Perlin said.

“New Jersey was the epicenter for pharmaceutical development for generations,” he said. “This is where innovations took place. This is where innovations were translated into products to improve patient outcomes. This was the Mecca and, in this building in particular, was this joining of academic scientists and pharmaceutical scientists together with this large ecosystem in New Jersey for a pharmaceutical development and biotechnology.

“This is the next generation. This is giving New Jersey a very high-end operation to be able to do exactly what was done for generations. To continue this tradition of excellence, of being able to take science innovation, making it work for patients, whether it’s new products in the form of therapeutics, diagnostics, whatever it might be, that’s what we’re seeking to do.

“For New Jersey, this is a fantastic thing. As an academic scientist who wants to do translational research, it doesn’t get any better than this.”

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