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Posts Tagged → industry-academia collaboration

Cantley Talks Pfizer CTI Collaboration

As drug companies forge closer ties with academic researchers, the value of pharma-academia partnerships continues to be cause for much debate (see here, here,  here, and here for more on that). We’ve watched the evolution of these collaborations with interest, and as part of our ongoing coverage, this week’s issue brings an in-depth look at the mechanics of Pfizer’s Centers for Therapeutic Innovation, its network of academic partners centered on hubs in San Francisco, New York, Boston, and San Diego.

But much of our focus has been on what drug companies can gain from deeper ties with academia. There’s another side to the coin: what the academic lab gains from teaming up with industry. While visiting Pfizer’s Boston CTI, I was glad to have a long chat with Harvard’s Lewis Cantley, known in cancer research circles for the discovery of the PI3K pathway, about why it made sense to link up with Pfizer.

Cantley has had many pharma partnerships, was a founder of Agios Pharmaceuticals, and has sat on the boards of other start-ups. As such, I was curious what made him want to turn to Pfizer for this particular project—developing a drug against a cancer target discovered in his lab–rather than go at it alone, or try to spin out another company.

Cantley conceded that his lab could have plugged away at the target for several years and eventually come up with something promising. But the target requires an antibody, and his lab is more experienced at discovering small molecules. Pfizer, meanwhile, could step in with expertise and technology that they otherwise would never have access to, significantly speeding up the drug discovery process.

Further, Pfizer made teaming up easy. “The legalities of conflict of interest issues and IP issues had all been addressed with negotiations between Harvard and Pfizer before they even solicited proposals,” Cantley says. “To me, this was huge.” He notes that past partnerships with industry have involved at least a year of negotiating before anyone gets down to doing business—or, as it may be, science.

Another positive was that working with Pfizer meant researchers in his lab could continue to be involved with the project. When Cantley became a founder of Agios, which focuses on developing drugs that interrupt cancer cell metabolism, he could no longer ethically allow students in his lab work on that aspect of the science. But under the Pfizer pact, post-docs can continue to explore the drug development as well as any basic biological questions that may arise.

Lastly, Cantley was attracted by the facility with which Pfizer and academic scientists could interact. As it turns out, Cantley’s labs are in the same building as Pfizer’s Boston CTI. “It’s literally two minutes to get from my lab to theirs,” he notes. The seamless exchange of reagents and technologies occurs at a “speed which just doesn’t happen with other industry collaborations,” he says.

Indeed, as the story discusses, Pfizer is banking on that proximity to enable good targets or lead molecules to be quickly moved from the bench to the bedside. The goal is to have three to four compounds in human trials in the next 18 months—a swift turnaround considering the first CTI, a partnership with UCSF and labs in San Francisco, was announced just two years ago.

Scripps’ Schultz & Merck’s Kim Talk Calibr

Yesterday brought word of a new partnership between Merck & Co. and Scripps Research Institute chemist and biotech entrepreneur Peter Schultz. The two have launched the California Institute for Biomedical Research (Calibr), a San Diego-based not-for-profit that will collaborate with academic investigators to bring drug discovery ideas to the point of proof-of-concept in animals. Merck has kicked in $90 million over seven years to help fund the venture, and will have an option to license any molecule that comes out of it.

C&EN’s news story with all the nitty-gritty details can be found here, but we wanted to follow up with some more insights into the formation of the institute gleaned from talks yesterday with Schultz and Merck’s R&D head Peter Kim.

A burning question I had was how the individual collaborations with academic researchers would be structured. Throughout my coverage of pharma-academia collaborations over the years (see here and here), I’ve repeatedly heard from big pharma that a major hang-up in doing more and better deals is the difference of opinion between the company and the university tech transfer office in the value of an early stage project. Drug companies will say a discovery needs a lot of work, done on their dime, and a university wants to ensure it gets its fair share of the potential sales of a drug.

One benefit of the not-for-profit as intermediary model is that the set up sidesteps what can quickly become contentious negotiations between universities and potential industry partners, Schultz says. “When it gets to a discussion between a university tech transfer office and big pharma, all of a sudden it’s ‘who’s taking advantage of whom’,” Schultz says. Conversely, “it’s really easy for people at, say, UCSF and Berkeley to collaborate.”

At Calibr, the collaboration begins at such an early stage in the discovery process that it offers a straightforward 50/50 split in any gains made down the road. “The whole idea of two not-for-profits with complementary skill sets in a collaboration is to make it simple and move things forward,” Schultz says.

Based on early conversations Schultz and others involved with Calibr have had with potential collaborators, that model seems satisfactory. “People get it,” he adds.

Another question was how quickly Calibr will move forward. Despite a lot of talk of eliminating red tape in some of the more ambitious pharma-academia collaborations, getting things up and running when two different flavors of bureaucracy are involved is no small task.

Schultz says that the first projects to come through Calibr will likely be a result of networking by the institute, its scientific advisory board, and Merck. He expects they will have the capacity to take on 15-20 projects within the first two years. Down the road, Schultz anticipates a more formal proposal process will be put in place.

Merck, meanwhile, believes this model will provide access to the best scientific discoveries out there. Many companies have formed broad collaborations with academic institutions: for example, Pfizer has a network of deep partnerships through its Centers for Therapeutic Innovation; J&J has an oncology pact with MIT’s David H. Koch Institute of Integrative Cancer Research; and AstraZeneca has a close relationship with several departments at Columbia University Medical Center.

That approach is not for Merck, Kim says. “We’re not interested in doing collaborations with entire institutions or departments, but rather we ask ‘Who is the best person in the world who we should be working with?’” he notes. “Calibr enhances that strategy and moves it to the next level. Essentially, any scientist anywhere in the world can tap into Calibr.”

As a side note, Merck’s participation in Calibr was made possible in no small part to the two scientists long-standing mutual admiration. They have known each other since the early 1980s, when Kim was a graduate student at Stanford and Schultz was an assistant professor at UC Berkeley. “There’s a very deep respect here and deep trust,” Kim says. “We’ve been friends–and competitors-for many years.”