Dr. Neal Walker: The ecosystem of innovation in dermatology

At Aclaris, we have built a sharp, experienced research and development team and have resources to tackle some of the “white spaces” in dermatology – conditions that lack approved medications or where significant treatment gaps exist. In our discovery laboratories in St. Louis and our clinical research unit in Wayne, PA, we are mining new insights into biologic pathways to develop innovative medicines that could potentially treat intractable conditions in dermatology and immunology.

But one company alone cannot ensure a vibrant ecosystem for innovation in dermatology. The future of dermatology depends on many physicians, researchers, business leaders and companies attacking disease targets from multiple angles.

That is why I joined a group of about a dozen other dermatologists, researchers, and business leaders seven years ago to form a novel non-profit organization committed to fostering and driving innovation in dermatology. At the time, each of us had individually concluded that there remained a significant need for scientifically-driven innovation to address the many dermatologic conditions that continued to vex researchers, frustrate physicians, and cause patients both physical and emotional discomfort.

To be sure, the number of new dermatology medicines submitted to the FDA for approval has fallen steadily over the past few decades. New medicines have been introduced for conditions like melanoma and plaque psoriasis, but dermatology is a field characterized by many common skin conditions as well as rare genetic disorders where significant unmet needs remain.

With the leadership of William Ju, M.D. as president, these colleagues and I founded Advancing Innovation in Dermatology (AID). We were hoping to create a resource and serve as a connection for scientists, clinicians, and entrepreneurs dedicated to expanding treatment options in the field. Now, AID has become the community of innovators that we envisioned, and that was so needed in our field.

Earlier this year, we held our fifth annual “Dermatology Summit,” and our fourth annual “Dermatology Entrepreneurship Conference”. We were heartened by the growing numbers of attendees each meeting attracted. Hundreds of people enthusiastic about innovation gathered to network and learned from experts in the field. The program covered everything from the latest advances in aesthetic dermatology to clinical trial management to outcomes measurement.

Just as we want to drive and support entrepreneurship, we also understand that we need to nurture the next generation of innovators committed to dermatology. Investing in future breakthroughs has to begin now, by training and inspiring new leaders to develop products and ultimately commercialize them. Right now, AID is in the process of reviewing applications from dermatology residents and fellows as well as early-career researchers and clinicians for a 10-month AID-sponsored program. The half dozen scholars selected for the program will connect with innovators from AID-member companies who can provide real-world guidance on how to advance new dermatologic treatment options, such as defining an opportunity, creating a drug development plan, and accessing expertise to navigate the regulatory approval process.

AID recognizes that insufficient financial resources can be a significant roadblock to innovation, especially in the high-risk early stages of proof-of-concept development. We have created the AID Accelerator Fund which is directed to bridge the gap between academic institutional funding and traditional venture capital. The fund provides seed funding and in-kind business support, such as guidance on establishing and protecting intellectual property. The fund is described in an article titled “Catalyzing Future Drug, Device, and Information Technology Breakthroughs in Dermatology” which appears online in the April 11 issue of JAMA Dermatology.

Beyond our work at Aclaris to drive dermatologic innovation, I am proud to have played a role in AID. If you are interested in learning more about it, visit