21st Century Innovation

Academic–industry partnerships are increasingly important in biopharmaceutical innovation.
Jun 02, 2011
Volume 35, Issue 6

Where will the breakthrough drugs of tomorrow come from? It's a question I'm asked often by the media, academic colleagues, and folks in large and small drug companies. It's clear that the research-based pharmaceutical industry, the source of the vast majority of prescription drugs today, is being buffeted by economic, regulatory, legal, and competitive pressures. A simple fact emerges: the extant model of drug development is yielding too few new products to sustain industry growth. As a result, many companies have had to re-evaluate and restructure their research and development (R&D) processes.

A major shift is the transformation from fully integrated pharmaceutical companies to a network model that encompasses the major stakeholders in drug development: large and small bio/pharmaceutical firms, academic research centers (ARCs), patient groups, public–private-partnerships, and contract research organizations. In the new model of innovation, these stakeholders have a place at the table and share in the risks and rewards of innovation.

Industry's role

Key to this new model of innovation is the relationship between pharmaceutical companies and academic institutions. The commitment to a new level of partnership is reflected in the steep cuts in R&D spending by some of the larger pharmaceutical companies, such as Pfizer and Sanofi. It may seem counterintuitive to say, "We're going to boost R&D productivity while we decrease R&D spending." These and other companies, however, are simply diverting their early-phase R&D efforts to ARCs, where the company gains access to cutting-edge science, highly skilled investigators, and state-of-the-art equipment, thereby allowing the company to lower overhead and investment in expensive discovery tools and technologies.

Pfizer's commitment to an academic-partnership strategy is exemplified by its initiative to create five Global Centers for Therapeutic Innovation. The first of these centers was announced in late 2010 and included an $85-million grant to the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) to develop new biological therapies. As part of the agreement, Pfizer is setting up joint laboratories on the UCSF campus to combine its knowledge of drug development with the basic-research expertise at UCSF. The deal allows the academic researchers to publish their research findings in academic journals and present at scientific meetings while the university shares with Pfizer the ownership rights to new drugs. The goal is to bridge the gap between important basic research discoveries and the commercial development of new medicines; in short, it supports translational science.

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