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ML student and Penn cardiologist pursues advances in treatment with help of legal education

November 05, 2018

Cardiologist Kiran Musunuru is engaged in cutting-edge research on a groundbreaking treatment with the potential to protect people against cardiovascular disease, and Penn Law’s Master in Law (ML) program is helping to give him the legal and business acumen to bring it to the world’s population.

Musunuru’s longstanding intellectual interest in the law initially inspired him to enroll in the program. Before choosing to become a doctor, he said, “I applied to law school and then ended up not choosing to go.” But the prospect of studying law “was always there in the back of my mind.”

After joining the faculty of Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, he realized a “particular advantage of being one unified campus and [having] everything in one place … and having tight interconnections between them, was the opportunity to take courses at essentially any school I wanted to[.] So when I heard about the Master in Law program, it was almost a little dream come true, in the sense that ‘Hey, here’s my chance to actually go to law school after all these years!’”

ML students take several courses from the JD curriculum, alongside JD students, further enriching the educational experience for both. Importantly, however, the ML curriculum also includes several courses targeted specifically at MLs. Musunuru found those classes to be an ideal opportunity for experts in other disciplines to learn about the law in an accessible way.

“It’s good because it’s pitched on our level, it’s pitched to people like myself — professionals,” he said, citing the practical, real-world focus of the courses.

While pursuing the ML degree, Musunuru is continuing his innovative work as a physician and scientist at Penn. He runs a laboratory focused on the genetics of cardiovascular disease, where he and his team seek to discover “genetic factors that either increase someone’s risk for cardiovascular disease or protect against cardiovascular disease,” such as heart disease. The protective factors, which he terms “good mutations,” are of particular interest. “Those are the ones that you would like to take advantage of to help the entire population, not just those fortunate few who happen to be born with the good mutations.”

Musunuru may have found a way to do just that: a technique called gene editing.

“Imagine if I could take an average person and give them a single shot that would edit that gene in their body and permanently reduce [the risk of cardiovascular disease] in that person,” he explains. “What I’m dreaming of doing is taking these good mutations … from those fortunate few who were lucky enough to inherit them, and actually put them permanently into the average person, or a person who’s at a particular risk for cardiovascular disease.” 

Of course, there’s a long road from initial research and development to gaining the necessary approval to implement the treatment in patients.

“As we’ve learned more in my lab about these good mutations and how you could potentially use them to protect people, of course the natural next step is how do we bring this to people,” said Musunuru. “There’s no way that one little laboratory can actually take it to the clinic. It inevitably involves entrepreneurship and starting a company.”

That’s where the ML program has proven particularly valuable.

 “Coincident with my enrolling in the Master in Law program …, over the last year I’ve also been working with colleagues to start a company with this very concrete goal in mind. Going through that process has been a learning experience, and I’ve found that a lot of what I’m learning in the law school courses I’m taking toward fulfillment of the ML program are extremely relevant,” said Musunuru.

So far, his courses in subjects like patent law and business law have been especially salient.

“[Business Law] was a great course because it really was focused on the life cycle of companies – how they start, how they grow, the end of a life cycle, mergers, acquisitions, and things of that sort. And this was all really happening in lockstep with my actually being involved in starting up a company.”

The start-up has since pitched to investors and secured its initial round of funding. With his team and a few new hires, Musunuru is currently starting work on the project in his laboratory at the Pennovation Center.

As he moves ahead with the goal of bringing gene editing into medicine’s mainstream, Musunuru expects his legal education to continue to inform his efforts, particularly on the subject of intellectual property.

“Going forward, any time I’m doing something in a laboratory, there will always be something going on in the back of my mind asking what are the IP implications,” he said. “That helps to guide how I think about some of the work that I do.”