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'Productive Areas of Overlap,' Conflicts for Academia, Industry

By Anette Breindl
Science Editor

In a session on "Bridging the Valley of Death: How Can Academia and Pharma Best Work Together?" at the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening's annual meeting in San Diego this week, researchers from both academia and industry talked about how to get the most out of such collaborations.

Such collaborations have a long history – speaker Allen Palkowitz, vice president of discovery chemistry at Eli Lilly and Co., noted that a collaboration between Lilly and the University of Toronto resulted in the first commercial insulin in the 1920s.

But as long as academia and industry have cross-pollinated, there's been trouble in paradise. The most recent example is the Abramson Cancer Research's lawsuit against biopharmaceutical company Agios Therapeutics Inc.

That lawsuit is over patents, which makes it pretty typical. Moderator Derek Lowe told the audience at the panel that in any collaboration, "the nastiest arguments are over money and who owns the discoveries." Lowe is a research fellow at Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc.

Lilly's Palkowitz gave a few tips on how to prevent nastiness. One is to "begin to hash out some general points" on intellectual property "as early as possible." But at the same time, it is important to remember that does, to some extent, count the chickens before they are hatched. It is also important "not to make it a huge stumbling block before it is clear that value creation will occur," since a lot of research never progresses to that point.

In general, the key to a happy collaboration is to remember both party's strengths and interests, so they will synergize rather than come into conflict. One example is the relationship between patents and publications. Industry research is, in general, more secretive than academia, where one key to success is publication.

John Reed, CEO of the Sanford-Burnham Institute, added that for small-molecule drugs it's often possible to publish on a compound that is related to the lead compound but is not itself going into clinical development. By publishing on such compounds, it is possible to publish "without spilling the beans" on key aspects of a molecule that are best kept away from competitors.

And panelist Mao Mao, a research fellow at Pfizer Oncology Research, went one step further: "I don't think there is a conflict between patents and publications," he told the audience. Both can be written simultaneously, so that a paper can be submitted almost as soon as a patent application is filed. In fact, he said, there should be no holdup. "A patent application is easier to write because there's a lot of standard language."

Academic researchers sometimes complain about the fact that their early stage research does not lead to the financial rewards it should. Rudy Juliano, of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, noted that "many universities have put a great deal of their own money into this," funding salaries as well as research facilities. If the payoff of that investment is financially meager because early stage compounds are not valued highly, "there is a real financial issue."

Sanford-Burnham's Reed said that given the realities of drug discovery, getting into translational research with the hopes of huge financial payoffs might be naïve for most universities. "It might happen, you might get a royalty on a blockbuster, pay for the whole thing and build your endowment . . . but that's pretty rare," he said.

The more likely financial payoff is what Reed termed a diversified revenue stream. "If you can have more grants from pharma and biotech, then that's certainly one way in which this can pay off."

In that sense, he said, building a translational center is no different from investing in translational research. Academic institutions "don't do it because they want to make money; they do it because they want to do great research."

In fact, though academia clearly makes critical contributions in practical areas like targets, compounds and technology development, the panelists also noted that academia's core mission – "blue-sky projects" or basic research – is a key benefit to industry.

For one thing, Lowe said, it helps keep a broader horizon. Industry is more prone to the herd instinct than academia. Lowe asserted that such herd instincts, especially when combined with the consolidation that has taken place within the industry, "has hurt our intellectual ecosystem" by creating a logjam around some popular targets and leaving other fertile grounds untilled. Academia, whose herd instinct is famously similar to that of cats, is more likely to take a broader view – and can discover those fertile grounds where it is least suspected.

Palkowitz gave oncology as one area where industry has benefited from academia's broader horizons. Fifteen years ago, he said, industrial oncology research was by and large limited to cytotoxic agents. Basic research opened up a number of new possibilities for targeting tumors. "That didn't happen in industry," he said. "It happened mostly in academia."

Palkowitz said such a broader view is especially useful for areas like central nervous system disorders, which are in what he termed "periods of reinvention."

And academia can take a long view as well as a broad one. UNC's Juliano pointed out that academia "provides continuity in challenging areas" such as antibodies or, more recently, RNA interference. "A few years ago, big pharma rushed into siRNA," Juliano said. "Now it's just as rapidly backpedaling. I think the flame will be kept alive in academia, and maybe five or 10 years from now, siRNA will find its true role."

The conference runs through Wednesday.