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Ithaka Life Sciences Ltd (Ithaka) is a provider of business advisory and interim management services to the life sciences sector.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Is there a role for universities in discovering drugs?

A decade ago the answer to this question would almost certainly have been ‘no’. However, the pharmaceutical industry landscape has changed immensely since then. This is particularly true in R&D where the global companies (‘big pharma’) have largely struggled to successfully fill their new product pipelines. New R&D models are being tested and companies have become much more collaborative in nature – ‘open innovation’ is now the name of the game.
So, in my opinion, the answer to the question is definitely ‘yes’. A good example of what universities and other academic institutions can do is the discovery of the multibillion dollar lung cancer drug, Alimta, which came from the lab of Prof Edward Taylor at Princeton in collaboration with Lilly. Alimta is used to treat advanced-stage lung tumours and also mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. To date, Princeton has received over $524 million in royalties from Alimta sales.

These sorts of rewards may well have stimulated other universities and it is interesting to note that that over 80 institutions are members of the Academic Drug Discovery Consortium (‘ADDC’). This is largely a US-based organisation but increasingly foreign entities like Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, are now members. The purpose of the ADDC is to facilitate the exchange of know-how and expertise among centres as well as to provide a platform for partnering/collaborating with service providers, biotech and big pharma companies.

Examples of recent collaborations between big pharma and academic institutions include Merck’s $90 million funding of a partnership with academic scientists and biotechnology entrepreneurs to create the California Institute for Biomedical Research (Calibr) in San Diego. Here in the UK, Novo Nordisk is funding 10 researchers at the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology at Oxford University to develop new drug candidates for rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune inflammatory diseases.

An interesting model for a drug discovery institute is the Vanderbilt Center for Neuroscience Drug Discovery (‘VCNDD’) in Nashville. Founded in 2007, the VCNDD is made up of 100 scientists and has resources that rival those of many industrial neurosciences groups. Furthermore, the VCNDD has been able to attract funding from a variety of sources including government entities (e.g. NIH), charities (e.g. the Michael J. Fox Foundation) and big pharma (e.g. AstraZeneca, and Bristol-Myers Squibb). With its focus in the neurosciences, the VCNDD is operating in a research area that many big companies have exited. Thus, they are filling a void and, if any of their programmes look promising in early clinical studies, there is likely to be significant interest from big pharma.

Ironically, these academic research efforts may have benefited from the big pharma cutbacks. In the UK many of the big pharma R&D sites have been closed or downsized (most recently AstraZeneca and Pfizer), leading to many experienced drug discovery scientists looking for new opportunities. I’m personally involved in a number of university-based drug discovery projects where former big pharma researchers are playing significant roles; their previous drug discovery experience is clearly valued in these new settings.

My colleague Bill Primrose and I wrote a chapter on open innovation in drug discovery for a recently published book, The Innovation Handbook (publisher Kogan Page). We cited lots of examples of collaborative projects between academia and industry, and it is worth noting that, for once, Europe is at the forefront of new approaches to innovation. Notable examples include the NewDrugs4BadBugs initiative for antibiotic discovery and development (a project with a budget of €223.7 million with participants including the Innovative Medicines Initiative (‘IMI’), AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline), and the European Lead Factory drug discovery programme (a €196 million initiative involving IMI and 30 academic and industry partners).  

Given the historical success rates in drug discovery and development, not all of these initiatives will work but I’m encouraged by the fact that many different approaches are being explored to fill the gap left by big pharma’s R&D cutbacks.

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