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GSK's Academic Competition Aims to Accelerate Innovation

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By Nuala Moran
Staff Writer

LONDON – As pharma's quest for pipeline-boosting innovation pushes further into academia, GlaxoSmithKline plc (GSK) has launched Discovery Fast Track to accelerate the translation of target biology into drug candidates.

The company is organizing a competition in which academics submit a one-page application outlining a novel drug development concept. Ten winners will get access to GSK facilities to scale up biological reagents and develop assays to underpin high-throughput screening against the London-based pharma's compound libraries.

If screens are successful, academics will be offered the opportunity to become part of GSK's Discovery Partnerships with Academia (DPAc) scheme, in which GSK funds work in academic labs and also provides discovery resources and skills to further advance a program.

The Discovery Fast Track competition, open to academics in North America, has been devised to allow GSK to access research without going through initial contract negotiations, which often are perceived as the biggest bottleneck in the process of establishing pharma/academic collaborations.

"It's not necessarily difficulties in negotiating, it's the sheer volume of opportunities in the U.S. and Canada," said Pearl Huang, global head of DPAc. "We realized we needed to take a different approach to try and capture these opportunities," she told BioWorld Today.

That insight comes from experience in running the DPAc scheme since its launch in the UK in late 2010. To date, nine collaborations have been established under DPAc, but Huang said because they are hybrid arrangements covering both sponsored research and direct collaboration, DPAc contracts are complicated and can take a long time to put in place.

"Since running a screen is the first step for many projects, we thought if we break it down, the early stage of a collaboration will move more quickly because it [covers] a smaller area of work," Huang said, noting that approach also will reduce the level of risk, since projects will only be taken on after successful screens.

For any projects where screens do not yield high-quality hits, there still will be benefits for academics who take part. Access to GSK's high-throughput screening tools and curated compound libraries (currently the repository for 1.8 million molecules) will provide an opportunity "to learn new things," and GSK will facilitate further academic research, Huang said.

Roger Cone, professor of molecular physiology and biophysics at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, who is part of an existing DPAc, said the program is extremely valuable. "Pharmaceutical companies bring an industrial approach to drug discovery that can't be replicated in academia." Cone said.

Discovery Fast Track is interested in proposals covering any therapeutic area. Preliminary one-page summaries, which must be submitted before July 19, will be reviewed by experts, and the 20 finalists they select will be invited to submit expanded descriptions.

It is at that point that all the usual paraphernalia of technology transfer, including due diligence, confidentiality agreements and material transfer agreements, will kick in. GSK's offer to screen a target or a pathway is contingent on the signing of a material transfer agreement by a winner's institution.

By late October 2013, 10 winners will be selected from the 20 finalists, and project teams, including the winning academic and relevant GSK experts, will be set up to work on each one.

Huang said the competition is an experiment, and it is not clear at this point how much time will be saved compared to the existing system for signing DPAc contracts. In addition, GSK has no idea how many initial applications it is likely to receive.

However, if academics do bite and the quality is high, it could be a neat mechanism for winnowing out the most promising academic research and getting access to the scientists behind it.