It Takes Two: Academia and the Drug Industry (Part II)

Graduate Division

The number of new drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration per billion dollars spent by the drug industry on research and development has halved approximately every nine years since 1950* (Scannell et al., 2013).

Larger pharmaceuticals now spend at least $5 billion per chemical entity. Such low rates of return on investment have caused companies to seek creative ways to bolster the efficiency of drug candidate development.

One strategy that is gaining momentum is partnerships with academic medical centers.

The Bay Area chapter of the Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable (OBR-Bay) recently invited local bio-entrepreneurship leaders to UCSF to participate in a discussion of the conditions leading to the increase in academic-industry partnerships, current models for collaboration and projections for the future.

The panel consisted of Jeffrey Bluestone, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost of UCSF; Corey Goodman, co-founder and Managing Partner of the investment firm venBio; Douglas Crawford, Associate Director of the QB3 Institute for Quantitative Bioscience; and Daria Mochly-Rosen, Director of the SPARK translational science program at Stanford University’s School of Medicine.

Models for Partnership

All panelists agreed that there is still no gold standard for industry-academia partnership, and that there are almost as many different models for collaboration as there are collaborations. One common aspect, however, seems to be direct personal interaction between scientists, who may even work side by side in the same laboratory. For example, a recent partnership between UCSF and Pfizer was established to develop small-molecule drug candidates, building upon a previous agreement to explore large-molecule candidates (“biologics”). Here, investigators will pitch project proposals to a steering committee composed of both Pfizer and UCSF scientists, and personnel from both groups will work on these projects together in the laboratory.

While some partnerships are focused on development of a single drug candidate, others may take a broader approach to screen compound or molecule libraries for drug targets.

For example, the French pharmaceutical Sanofi recently began work with synthetic biologists at the University of California Berkeley to develop a cheaper, more dependable synthetic alternative to the anti-malarial compound artemisinin, which has historically been derived from the sweet wormwood plant.

In another recent Sanofi collaboration, the company partnered with the UCSF Diabetes Center to screen UCSF’s siRNA library for molecules that affect insulin production, as well as compounds from Sanofi’s proprietary libraries that may regulate them.

Scientists from both Sanofi and UCSF with expertise in target validation and the underlying biology will serve as advisors to these studies.

This is the second article in a three-part series about partnerships between the pharmaceutical industry and academia.