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UCSF’s Yamamoto Talks Pharma Partnering

Yesterday brought news that Keith Yamamoto has been named vice chancellor of research at University of California, San Francisco, where the pharmacologist has long been vice dean of the School of Medicine. Coincidentally, this week’s issue includes a one-on-one with Yamamoto, who is playing an instrumental role in reshaping the model for industry and academia partnerships.

In the story, we pick Yamamoto’s brain about the genesis of several groundbreaking pacts between UCSF and big pharma companies, and, more generally, his views on how industry and universities should work together to accelerate the discovery of important new medicines. He also had some thoughts that didn’t make it into print, but seemed worth sharing, about what models might not work, as well as the kinds of innovative pacts that could be formed in the future.

The old consulting agreements with universities, which commonly involved keeping one another at arm’s length, “in my view can’t work,” Yamamoto says. “The challenge then becomes, what can displace that?” he says. “No one knows the answer to that question, but what’s clear is that we need to start looking for solutions.”

Yamamoto outlines the partnership UCSF is testing out with Pfizer (click here for details on that pact), an approach that he tells C&EN aims to “fill the valley of death with people.” While we’ve written about the benefits these kind of closer ties can have for pharma, Yamamoto discusses in the article how academic researchers could benefit from a more open and collaborative relationship with pharma, and the metrics used to gauge the success of these new partnerships.

Yamamoto also had some strong views on what academia should not be doing. Namely, he thinks universities that are trying to build drug discovery centers, in essence creating a biotech within the walls of academia, are taking the wrong tack. (see here for more on that model). Trying to establish the kind of core competencies that pharma has spent years honing, such as high throughput screening, is counterproductive, he contends. Better to focus on what academic scientists do best– elucidating the underlying mechanisms of disease and developing research tools to probe them–than try to push into drug development.

But that criticism is not just limited to universities. NIH is creating its own drug discovery engine through the proposed translational science center, a move Yamamoto also thinks is mistaken. “We need to realize that the best way to be able to move toward each other is not by deciding to do what the other side does,” he says. “It’d be much better for us to keep doing what we do well, but to do it in a more interactive and communicative way.”

The models UCSF is trying out are not the only way forward, and Yamamoto believes more innovation will be needed in order to accelerate the discovery of better, more targeted medicines. “There are some experiments to be done in the realm of pre-competitive public-private partnerships,” he says. Building consortia between academia, industry, government, and regulatory agencies could enable scientists to tackle the kinds of scientific questions “that no single institution can or should take on.” For example, developing better animal models of disease or predictive models of toxicology will likely only be accomplished with the cooperation of many players in the field.

1 Comment

  • Mar 23rd 201109:03
    by Dr. Zoidberg

    I tend to agree with Yamamoto that the current “collaboration” model doesn’t work. However, I’m also not sure if the new model will be better. It sounds better than the current model because students would actually be establishing contacts within the pharma industry rather than relying on the hollow promises of their PIs that finishing a 28 step synthesis of a natural product will guarantee them a job.

    However, given the current pharma mentality of “save money, efficiency/quality be damned”, grad students could very well get the shaft and still be unemployable at the end of their training. They’ll simply have contributed work to a project that can be outsourced.

    Change needs to occur on both sides of the table. I think UCSF is taking the right steps, but I’m highly skeptical that Pfizer or any other pharmas engaging in this are thinking of anything beyond the bottom line. It’s hard to find labor as inexpensive and hard-working as grad students, I have no confidence that these companies will just up and increase their pay 4 or 5-fold when these students graduate.

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