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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.

Pfizer Adds UCSF as First Partner in Academic Network

Pfizer has committed up to $85 million over five years to an expansive research agreement with the University of California, San Francisco, intended to speed the development of new biologic-based medications. More critically, the relationship with UCSF will be the first spoke in a network of academic collaborators, with Pfizer at the hub. Called the Center for Therapeutic Innovation, the goal is to bridge the gap between basic science and early clinical studies of potential drug candidates.

Anthony Coyle, former head of respiratory, inflammation, and autoimmune disease research at MedImmune, will lead the network. Coyle says CTI will eventually be comprised of seven or eight partners: three or four in the U.S., one or two in Europe, and the remainder in Asia or Australia. Expect to see two more U.S.-based partners, one in NY and the other in Boston, added to the network by the end of the year, he adds.

The creation of the CTI is Pfizer’s latest shake-up of the model for industry-academic collaborations. If you’ll recall, last spring, Pfizer caused a stir when it said it would give scientists from Washington University‘s School of Medicine access to data on 500 compounds that have gone through or are in some stage of clinical development. The hope is that fresh eyes with deep insights into the biology of disease and drug targets might lead to new uses for the compounds. See our recent cover story on the deal for much more detail on how that arrangement works.

Ultimately, Pfizer hopes that by breaking down some of the barriers that have hindered an open exchange between industry and academia—the right to publish, ownership of intellectual property, shared profits on products, to name a few—it will be able to get new drugs to market faster.

Coyle says the CTI will be solely focused on biologic-based drugs, mainly because he wants each center to be fairly autonomous and able to make decisions quickly. With the infrastructure required to develop small molecules, they would have had to rely on medicinal chemists “in distant locations,” and would run the risk of creating an “overburdened” project.

The first step in the UCSF collaboration will be a trip by Coyle and other Pfizer executives to the campus in December to explain the program. Because Pfizer believes the projects will only work if scientists are working side-by-side, the company will set up new labs that can accommodate up to 40 scientists close to the UCSF campus.

University scientists will have access not just to Pfizer’s drug development knowledge, but to its research tools—of particular note is that Pfizer is making its phage display libraries accessible to those working on joint projects. Pfizer, meanwhile, will have easier access to tissue samples and tools that can help it quickly understand which patient populations its drug candidates will be relevant in.

Proposals by UCSF scientists are reviewed by a steering committee comprised of four members from the university, and four members from Pfizer. And just like a biotech is funded, follow-up cash will be linked to the project achieving milestones.

“It’s almost like VC-based funding,” Coyle says. The deals are light on capital upfront, “and then projects are funded as they are successful. If there’s no success or a project didn’t meet the appropriate milestone, then there’s no additional funding.”