Brains and brawn united

June 1, 2007
Ryan F. Donnelly
Pharmaceutical Technology Europe
Volume 19, Issue 6

The financial return to industry on its investment in academia through licensing and funding of basic research can be similar to that in its own research programmes. A report from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, UK Drug Delivery Research: The Way Forward in the New Millennium, emphasized the importance of drug delivery research in improving patient outcomes and the opportunities for industry and academia to further explore this area, particularly for newly discovered macromolecular drugs. Unsurprisingly, therefore, industry has become increasingly interested in investing in research performed in academic settings as a complement to its own research. Government is currently exhorting universities to transform their traditional role to institutions that can drive economic development and innovation.

The financial return to industry on its investment in academia through licensing and funding of basic research can be similar to that in its own research programmes. A report from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, UK Drug Delivery Research: The Way Forward in the New Millennium, emphasized the importance of drug delivery research in improving patient outcomes and the opportunities for industry and academia to further explore this area, particularly for newly discovered macromolecular drugs. Unsurprisingly, therefore, industry has become increasingly interested in investing in research performed in academic settings as a complement to its own research. Government is currently exhorting universities to transform their traditional role to institutions that can drive economic development and innovation.

Types of collaboration

Various models exist for pharmaceutical industry–academia collaboration. In the UK, funding can be obtained for such activities from the Research Councils and the Wellcome Trust. The Knowledge Transfer Partnerships scheme supports small-to-medium scale collaborations, while Cooperative Awards in Science & Engineering allow small collaborative projects to be conducted through the award of a PhD studentship. The UK Research Councils operate these and other research training schemes through Collaborative Training Accounts. Similar schemes exist in other European countries, while a number of mechanisms exist under the European 7th Framework Programme for facilitating collaboration between academic groups and small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs).

Advantages

As well as obtaining funding for their departments, academics can derive other benefits from such collaborations including consultancy work, developing direction to their research and, most importantly, the ability to see a discovery through to the granting of a full patent. By working with academia, pharmaceutical companies can gain access to basic ideas and technologies that have long-term commercial potential. As a result, industry has increasingly been able to rapidly convert discoveries made in academic settings into commercially viable products.

Difficulties

Though industrial sponsorship of academic research has grown significantly over the last two decades, it still accounts for less than 10% of the research costs at European universities. One reason for this, particularly in the UK, is the full economic costing of research grants. Companies may be unwilling to pay significant overheads to universities for administration and estate costs. Conversely, universities increasingly have to take a business-like approach to the costing of research projects and, thus, need to recover from industrial partners the true economic cost of the work undertaken.

A sizeable proportion of industrial funding for academia is targeted for applied research and clinical trials that closely fit the priorities of that particular company. Industry sponsorship of research, therefore, is not a replacement for significant government and charity investment in basic scientific investigations. At the same time, industry's increased investment in academia has raised concerns that the potential imposition of corporate secrecy and drive for profits is at odds with academic culture. Many industrial grants come with a requirement for publication delay to allow internal review and filing for patent protection when deemed necessary. Somewhat ironically, this requirement is now accepted in most academic departments, partly because most universities are quite aggressive in seeking patent protection on discoveries with commercial potential.

More troubling is the extension of intellectual property (IP) rights and the associated restrictions beyond the research actually funded by the company. Ownership of such IP rights occasionally has the potential to cause appreciable difficulties between industrial and academic partners.

Conclusions

Many academics know little about the workings of industry. To increase the number of industry–academia collaborations, the UK offers Royal Society Industry Fellowships, allowing industrial and academic researchers to experience each other's working environment. Through this, and other such arrangements, academics can gain exposure, for example, to the work required to achieve proof of concept in humans. By understanding the processes involved in industry, it may become clear to academics where areas for new investigation and collaboration may lie.

Efforts should be made to accommodate the specific cultural needs that exist in both environments. With an increased mutual understanding and respect for the priorities within both sectors and well-defined, transparent research collaborations, it should be possible to further leverage the large public investment in basic sciences into discoveries that can have a real impact on public health

Ryan F. Donnelly is a lecturer in pharmaceutics, School of Pharmacy, Queens University Belfast (UK).