Rapid research: Why Perlin, winner of 2023 Sol J. Barer Award, feels discoveries will come faster in future

CDI leader says search for solutions during pandemic showed power of partnerships in life science

Dr. David Perlin at the CDI. (File photo)

It surely will be the greatest medical research discovery of our time: Scientists, working together around the world, created a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus that had shut down the globe and seemingly was threatening humanity.

And they did it in less than a year.

The challenge now? Make more discoveries, create more therapeutics — and do it in that same record time.

Many scientists would run from the timeline — and insist that research can’t be rushed. Dr. David Perlin, the chief scientific officer and executive vice president of the Hackensack Meridian Health Center for Discovery and Innovation, isn’t in that camp. He accepts the challenge.

“Fundamentally, when we think about drug discovery, nobody is going to tolerate a 10-year, billion-dollar development timeline for therapeutics anymore,” he said. “The public now expects us to be able to develop drugs in a year.

“That’s unrealistic — but it’s also aspirational. And, frankly, I think we can accelerate the timeline. We’ve shown we can.”

Perlin and his team at CDI played a huge role in the fight against COVID-19. They created a test that could detect the virus in hours (not days) — and they did so before the state even shut down. And, when Pfizer created a potential vaccine, it came to CDI to do its evaluations.

For these reasons and more, Perlin will be honored by BioNJ with the prestigious 2023 Sol J. Barer Award for Vision, Innovation and Leadership at its annual gala Thursday night.

Perlin, who has decades of accomplishments in scientific research, said he was humbled and honored to receive such an award. He said he can’t wait to get back to the lab, too.

Perlin said the societal push to make more discoveries in shorter periods of time has had one fantastic byproduct: It has forced all those participating in the field to work together — as they did during the race to find a therapeutic for COVID-19.

It also gave newfound respect to academic researchers such as himself.

“What COVID-19 did was drive a conversation that highlighted the important role that academic science plays in creating clinically important solutions,” he said. “In the early part of the pandemic, it wasn’t pharmaceutical companies or diagnostic companies or even government that was able to make headway — especially for the early diagnostics, and even for therapies. It was academic scientists, translational scientists who had innovations and know-how that they felt could be brought rapidly to the clinic.”

They knew the fastest routes, Perlin said.

“Because we’ve worked with lots of companies and we’ve helped develop products, we understood what you would need to do to take your science and make it clinically relevant,” he said.

“Creating new diagnostics and therapeutic solutions showcased what academic science could really do when pressed. It also emphasized that we need to create partnerships among academic scientists, clinicians and industry professionals to find solutions much more effectively.”

Perlin said there’s no turning back.

“I think the knee-jerk reaction is always, ‘Let’s go back to the way we were, when we’re going to compete and try to outdo each other,’” he said. “The reality is that we’ve seen such great success in all of us coming together collectively that we can’t.”

Perlin on the Barer Award

Dr. David Perlin, the chief scientific officer at the Hackensack Meridian Health Center for Discovery and Innovation, on winning the 2023 Sol J. Barer Award for Vision, Innovation and Leadership:

“It’s pretty incredible. It’s humbling. First, to be honored by BioNJ, which has been a leader in advancing life sciences in New Jersey. And then, to get an award named after Sol Barer, who I know quite well. He is an iconic figure who is synonymous with innovation that’s resulted in therapies that have been transformative, especially for cancer patients.

“And, finally, the former awardees read like a ‘Who’s who’ of people who have improved the lives of patients everywhere and in numerous fields of medicine. To be included in this group is really extraordinary.”

Notable past winners include: Dr. Andrew Pecora (Hackensack Meridian Health), Dr. Bill Hait (Johnson & Johnson), Kenneth Frazier (Merck) and Judith Persichilli (state of New Jersey).

There are 65 million reasons why they shouldn’t, too.

Perlin and CDI are the co-leads to the Metropolitan AntiViral Drug Accelerator, or MAVDA, which is being funded by a three-year, $65 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease’s Antiviral Drug Discovery Centers for Pathogens of Pandemic Concern program.

Researchers at CDI (and Rutgers University) will be working with world-class virologists and academic drug finders from Rockefeller University, Columbia University and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, along with proven antiviral drug developers Merck, the Tri-Institutional Therapeutics Discovery Institute and Aligos Therapeutics.

MAVDA’s mission will be to discover, optimize and test innovative small molecule antiviral drugs to target coronaviruses, emphasizing SARS-CoV-2, and one or more select RNA viruses with pandemic potential. The goal is to rapidly develop drugs that can be given orally, and in an outpatient setting, in the near future.

The co-leader is Dr. Charles Rice, a Rockefeller University virologist and Nobel laureate.

A group like this could never have come together pre-pandemic, Perlin said.

“In the old days, you could never work with pharmaceutical companies; they were always at arm’s length,” he said. “Now, there’s this embedding of industry and academia to solve problems.”

And not just in the infectious disease space.

“We’re seeing it in the oncology space and for autoimmune diseases, such as diabetes,” he said. “There’s a sense that we can make faster progress if we work together.”

The payoff will come in more than just time, Perlin said.

“At the end of the day, value is created in the form of helping our patients recover faster, prevent disease, and value is created from a commercial standpoint in that there’s money to be made — and there’s plenty for everybody, if this is done properly.”

It’s a new way of research: One where results — achieved quickly — are everything.

“What the pandemic showed is that U.S. science is not just publishing in high-end journals and getting grants,” he said. “It is really about implementing that science innovation to solve unmet medical needs — that’s what we’re able to do.”

That’s what Perlin wants to keep on doing. He thinks about it every day at CDI. And he thinks about words that Barer himself once told him.

“There’s an important concept that Sol Barer has repeated to me numerous times,” Perlin said. “He said: ‘Don’t do incremental science, take on big challenges. That should be your goal.’

“I think that’s exactly what we have to do. We have to take on big challenges. Bring partners together, and you find ways to create those solutions.

“It’s the Steve Jobs approach at Apple. Don’t do what everybody’s doing a little better, find something new to do that’s transformative. That’s what we want to do.”