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IMI's European Lead Factory Latest in Open Innovation

By Nuala Moran
Staff Writer

LONDON – The Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) officially launched the European Lead Factory, a €196 million (US$266 million) project in which seven pharma companies will make at least 300,000 compounds available for screening via an open platform. That will allow academic and small company partners access to industry-quality high-throughput screening and speed the translation of new target biology through to drug leads.

The cash for the five-year project comes from the European Union's R&D fund, Framework Programme 7, which will contribute €80 million in grant money to academic groups and SMEs that take part. The balance of €91 million comes as in-kind contributions from the pharma companies, with the remaining €25 million from other sources.

The executive director of IMI, Michel Goldman, said the Lead Factory will transform the way in which pharma companies identify leads. "For the first time, it will give European researchers unprecedented access to industry chemical collections and facilitate the translation of their findings." In addition to increasing the chances of success in lead discovery, the project "will add value by building research capacity in Europe," Goldman said.

That is a central concern of IMI, which was set up jointly between the European Union and European pharmaceutical companies in an attempt to improve the environment for pre-competitive research and to staunch the flow of pharma R&D out of Europe. The initiative is investing €2 billion over 10 years and to date has funded 40 projects addressing bottlenecks in drug development.

The European Lead Factory also should be seen from the perspective of other collaborations and partnerships that aim to accelerate translation of basic research and shape it into projects that can fit into the bottom end of pharma pipelines. So for example, companies including Roche AG, Pfizer Inc. and GlaxoSmithKline plc are now systematically forming one-to-one relationships with academic groups.

It's also the case that academic and charitable bodies are pooling resources in an attempt to help new science over the gulf that exists between the outputs of research funded by public grants and programs that can attract private capital to move them forward.

A recent notable example is the Global Alliance of Drug Discovery and Development Centers, in which six of the world's most prestigious public drug discovery organizations have joined forces in a bid to improve the conversion rate of basic research into new therapies.

That brings together the Center for Drug Research and Development in Canada, Germany's Lead Discovery Center, the Scripps Research Institute, Scripps Florida, the Center for Drug Design and Discovery at KU Leuven in Belgium and Medical Research Council Technology Ltd. and Cancer Research Technology, both in the UK.

The governance of the European Lead Factory is in the hands of TI Pharma, a nonprofit body based in the Netherlands, which will be responsible for the scientific management of the screening platform. Ton Rijnders, head of screening for the European Lead Factory, said connecting leading-edge science with pharma's expertise in drug discovery and development, and the agility of SMEs, will provide "superior input and output."

The European Lead Factory is directed by Bayer Pharma, with AstraZeneca plc, H. Lundbeck A/S, Sanofi SA, Merck KGaA and UCB Pharma SA as the other industry partners. The collection of 300,000 compounds coming from those pharma companies will be augmented by a 200,000 newly synthesized compound collection built by the SMEs and academic partners using pooled knowledge of all consortium members, and through open innovation and crowdsourcing.

The 500,000 compound library will be housed and managed by TI Pharma and BioCity in Newhouse, Scotland. Once up and running, the European Lead Factory will provide the compounds and support for 48 high-throughput screening projects per year. Of those, 24 will come from the industry partners, who will run their own screens. The other 24 high-throughput screening projects will be selected from across the public sector following open calls for proposals, and will be run at TI Pharma or BioCity.

Public programs selected by the project will be further advanced by the European Lead Factory, which will provide guidance in the design of the experiments, support on medicinal chemistry and help setting up partnerships with others if needed.

Once a screen has been run, the organization that submitted the target will receive a list of up to 50 hits for further development.