How Philanthropic Funding is Revolutionizing Medical Breakthroughs

How Philanthropic Funding is Revolutionizing Medical Breakthroughs

Philanthropy has been instrumental in filling gaps in translational research that would otherwise go unfunded. For example, disease research foundations are establishing “dream teams” of researchers, including patient advocates and other stakeholders, to collaborate on research.

Similarly, an Institute for brain science operates more like a startup than a traditional lab. And the productivity that results from this more businesslike approach is remarkable.

How It’s Changing the Business of Breakthroughs

One challenge facing many of today’s largest philanthropists, including Barbara Picower, is finding ways to catalyze societal change at scale—many strategies that have proven successful run counter to prevailing funding practices.

They focus on translational research, helping technologies move past the “valley of death” and onto commercial entities that can shepherd them through regulatory pathways to FDA approval. These efforts can derisk R&D for others and potentially produce outsized impacts.

Another key strategy involves collaboration. For example, philanthropists have worked with families touched by rare diseases to marshal resources that can launch scientific fields of inquiry. This can help researchers define, characterize, and understand difficult-to-diagnose conditions—a crucial step that can make much of science more attractive to other funders and companies.

They also encourage data sharing to speed up progress in research and development. As the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation demonstrates, a collaborative approach can reduce barriers to innovation and make it more efficient to move promising science forward.

How It’s Changing the Research Landscape

Philanthropy is important in medical research, even if it represents only a tiny fraction of overall spending. It can help derisk research, generate early data to make projects and labs competitive for federal funding, and provide resources to support high-risk, high-reward initiatives that may take a disease to the edge of a breakthrough.

But as our successful case studies show, philanthropy can have a much bigger impact if it goes beyond basic science. It can incentivize new behaviors like collaboration and data sharing, speeding up the discovery process and amplifying its effects. It can also invest in the distribution machinery needed to push assets over the finish line and into the hands of patients.

Indeed, the comparative statistics on large philanthropic gifts show that scientists’ emphasis is shifting away from fundamental research and toward translational work. Yet this shift should be viewed in the context of broader trends in federal funding, which are shifting in similar directions.

How It’s Changing the Patient Experience

People donate to a hospital for many reasons. Some do so to honor the memory of a loved one who struggled with an illness. Others make a gift because they want to help build a healthier community. And some are directly impacted by a clinical experience and decide to support research that can improve the lives of future patients.

Philanthropic funds are helping to derisk the R&D process by investing in a developing field’s initial work—defining and characterizing rare, hard-to-diagnose diseases; setting the stage for other funders to support; and accelerating the time it takes for drugs to reach patients.

This is especially true for disease-focused foundations that use venture philanthropy models, like the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (CFF), which financed translational academic research programs and then turned them over to commercial entities to shepherd the drugs through the development and regulatory processes.

In some cases, this approach has gotten lifesaving technologies through what is known as the Valley of Death, the period between an innovative technology’s promise and its entry into the marketplace.

How It’s Changing the Health Care System

Philanthropy’s ability to move research faster from the lab to the clinic is well known. But what is less often appreciated is how charity can move the needle on broader, more fundamental system change.

As a result, more hospital systems are adopting a “venture philanthropy” strategy that funds translational academic research and commercial entities to shepherd the technology through the regulatory pathway toward FDA approval. As the foundations and companies invest their resources, they also bring expertise and accountability to bear on the project.

Most community hospitals operate on a negative total margin, so philanthropic funding provides the critical, unrestricted capital needed to build cutting-edge buildings and acquire specialized equipment. At the same time, philanthropic funding can also support necessary internal efforts often not funded by reimbursement entities, such as community health education and internal workforce development. Ultimately, this enables hospitals to be truly community assets.

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