SHANGHAI – London-based Glaxosmithkline plc is on the hunt for new ways to treat brain diseases and has found an academic partner in the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP), of La Jolla, Calif.

GSK and SBP scientists will work together in a new laboratory to investigate brain function with the aim of identifying and validating new therapeutic targets that can slow down or reverse neurodegeneration. The lab, located in La Jolla, is financially supported for three years with the possibility of an extension by GSK.

“If you want to drive progress and test hypotheses that are high risk – but potentially high reward if validated – then you need environments that encourage people to take risks,” Min Li, GSK senior vice president, global head of neurosciences and general manager of R&D China, told BioWorld Asia. “What we are doing is creating this kind of environment by fully funding a lab in an institutional ecosystem with deep and diverse expertise.”

Li, a neuroscience expert, knows a thing or two about how to motivate a team to get top-notch results in the lab. Before joining GSK in 2014, he spent more than 20 years at Johns Hopkins University, gaining tenure in 2004.

In 2008, he became the director of Johns Hopkins Ion Channel Center. Li led several industry-academic alliances, including a deal with Pfizer Inc. on molecular transport mechanism; with Aviva Biosciences Corp. on single cell separation; with Xencor Inc. on protein antibody engineering; and with Corning on cell sensor development.

Li works out of Shanghai where the headquarters for GSK’s global neuroscience R&D center was located in 2008, but he also travels to the firm’s other neuroscience R&D sites in London and Philadelphia.

The Chinese team has contributed multiple neuroscience candidates to the global pipeline, said Li, some in advanced development. Yet, with the latest partnership, the team is looking to tap deeper into the West Coast’s vibrant academic, biotech and venture communities.

Last year, GSK set up a neuroscience R&D satellite and biotech incubator in La Jolla just a short walk from the newly established SBP-GSK Center for Translational Neuroscience. They are located just down the street from the Scripps Research Institute and the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences.

While the location is important, Li said he is not just thinking about the wider ecosystem but also about ensuring the workings of the team dynamic are taken into account, and that means establishing trust.

A delicate balancing act, trust is created in a few different ways. By fully funding the lab for three years, the team can be focused and not have to chase grants or take on multiple projects. And SBP, known for cancer, immunity, metabolic disorders and rare children’s diseases, can further ramp up its efforts in neurodegeneration.

But money is not enough to guarantee success if the industry partner takes a heavy-handed approach.

“No matter how much we fund the program, it’s the scientists with the incredible intellectual horsepower that drive it,” said Li. “We want to be part of this vibrant, ecosystem of scientific excellence, and we look forward to contributing and growing in this environment.”

However, GSK’s support is also purposeful. Funding will go to those projects with a therapeutic dimension. “Ultimately, we want to validate targets, and develop assets so that they can become a valuable component or deliverable that will be of benefit to patients,” Li said.

BUILDING A NEUROSCIENCE PIPELINE

According to Li, SBP makes an attractive partner because of its multidisciplinary approach to neuroscience, combining expertise in biology, genomics, chemistry, imaging and drug screening to reveal the underlying causes of neurodegeneration and novel strategies to treat nervous system disorders. Scientists at SBP have made breakthroughs in understanding the genes and pathogenesis of neurological disorders, creating new disease targets for drug discovery and development.

The thinking is if the industry-academic model take with SBP is successful, GSK will replicate the approach in other therapeutic areas.

But for the moment, GSK is hoping to stay on top of a field that looks set to bring discoveries based on recent advances in understanding brain function to the millions suffering from Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other age-related diseases.

According to GSK, the number of people living with dementia worldwide is set to triple by 2050 to 135 million, yet there are currently no medicines that can prevent or cure that common disorder, and the same can be said of other neurodegenerative conditions.

In large part that is due the low success rate for developing new medicines, with many failures littering the way – only 8 percent of experimental treatments for neurological conditions that reach the testing stage in humans ever become an approved medicine.

As of March 2016, GSK had four neuroscience candidates in clinical development globally, including a beta-amyloid monoclonal antibody, 933776, in phase II for geographic retinal atrophy. That candidate is behind two other amyloid beta antibodies that have already reached phase III testing, one from Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Co. and the other from Biogen Inc., of Cambridge Mass. (See BioWorld Today, April 18, 2016.)

GSK also has in phase II development Benlysta, a B lymphocyte stimulator monoclonal antibody for myasthenia gravis, and rilapladib, a lipoprotein-associated phospholipase A2 inhibitor for Alzheimer’s disease.

A fourth unnamed candidate, in phase I, is an ocular target, LICA antisense oligonucleotide1, for geographic atrophy age-related macular disease.

In other China-related R&D news, last month GSK invested $29 million to establish an R&D institute in Beijing to address the public health concerns associated with infectious diseases and drug resistance.

The goal is to bring cost-effective medicines from GSK’s pipeline to meet the needs of Chinese patients. The institute will be led by Zhi Hong, senior vice president and head of GSK’s infectious diseases R&D unit.

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