After years of reduced government funding and a worsening economy, drugmakers and universities are edging still closer in the form of new deals that involve academic and industry scientists working together to design projects. And as universities gain access to funding, pharma believes the arrangements yield more accountability.
The end result is a new breed of alliances in which these scientists jointly come up with project proposals, divvy up the labwork, and patent and publish their results, writes Chemical & Engineering News, which takes a lengthy look at the topic and declares that the goal is to accelerate the move from basic biology to drug targets and, ultimately, medicines.
"The approach 20 years ago was pharma gives a chunk of change, and then they have the rights to license any discoveries," Laurie Glimcher, a professor at Harvard Medical School and a professor of immunology at Harvard School of Public Health, tells C&E. "I don't think that really works anymore. It has become apparent to many people in the private sector and the academic sector that closer ties between industry and academia are the wave of the future."
In September 2007, Merck became the first drugmaker to establish a broader R&D alliance with an academic institution when it announced an agreement to conduct research into oncology topics and central nervous system disorders with Harvard Med School. The initial deal provided six Harvard labs with funding. And because Merck's Boston R&D site is within walking distance of Harvard, researchers from both sides have ready access to one another's labs, C&E writes.
AstraZeneca is taking different approaches, even with the same institution. The drugmaker signed two separate deals with Columbia University for different levels of involvement. Under the first deal, signed in June, their collaboration has three goals: to elucidate the biology and find promising targets in diabetes and obesity, to establish clinical protocols that provide guidance about whether a drug is working, and to understand specific drug mechanisms in more detail. In a second pact covering neurology, Columbia looks for new avenues to treat depression, while AstraZeneca is responsible for providing molecules that can test pathways discovered by Columbia.
Pfizer, meanwhile, is evolving an existing relationship with Washington University. The two organizations established ties more than 20 years ago, but now university scientists across a range of disciplines make short research proposals related to immunology and inflammation, which are reviewed by a joint steering committee cochaired by Karen Seibert, vp of Pfizer's research labs in St. Louis and Jeff Gordon, director of Washington University's Center for Genome Sciences.
The academic researchers are then paired with Pfizer scientists to write a full proposal. After considering the full proposals, the steering committee chooses which will get funds. Scientists from industry and academia then work as a team to complete the projects, with free access to the resources at their respective organizations.
""It's an evolution away from the traditional funding paradigm toward what I view as a truly collaborative agreement," Seibert tells C&E. "There is complete openness - no walls, no barriers. The ideas develop collaboratively, and the focus often changes when our scientists come together to the table."
Not everyone is thrilled with these arrangements, though. Hector DeLuca, a biochemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, concedes that drugmakers can be an important source of funding, but thinks a better way to manage industry funding is with the traditional model: Industry pays for research, stands back, and then has first right of refusal on any discoveries produced.
"I am always hesitant to form an alliance like that because there's a difference in goals," he tells C&E says, adding that, sometimes, companies profess openness, but don't want work published for intellectual property reasons or because they fear regulatory repercussions down the road. "There are a lot of restrictions with industry that I don't like to see in the academic world. The problem is, we can't support the academic world anymore."