Translating innovation into new approaches for applied and clinical research

Guest Columnist

N. Anthony Coles, M.D.,
President and Chief Executive Officer, Onyx Pharmaceuticals

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Getting Academic-Biopharmaceutical Partnerships Right: The Next Leap in Innovation

The popular image of an "innovator" conjures up thoughts of brilliant, solitary thinkers engaging in creative breakthroughs – sometimes through careful application of the scientific process and, sometimes, through serendipity: Edison and the light bulb, Fleming and penicillin, Salk and the polio vaccine. But actual innovation, today, looks vastly different and sometimes requires focused collaboration, particularly in biological sciences – think myeloma where survival rates have more than doubled in the last 10 years with improvements in diagnosis and treatment. Taking a novel scientific idea and transforming it into a medication that can change thousands or millions of lives requires not just one innovator, but hundreds – or more – all united by a common purpose in partnership.

Nearly all the biomedical advances of the last half-century have emerged from such collaborations. Historically, innovators have worked sequentially; the basic research laboratory advancing a discovery and then transferring it to clinical experts who often, in the case of academic centers and investigators, license the promising technology to an organization with money and resources to complete the process by bringing new treatments directly to patients. But these handoffs can be inefficient, and the process can slow or break down any time a member of the "innovation chain" bumps into the limit of their expertise.

As a consequence, I believe the next great era of life science partnership will focus on greater integration throughout the discovery and development cycle, so that scientists and academicians performing early research can collaborate directly with the organizations whose clear mission it is to make new therapies widely available. This approach ensures that those developing a drug are working side-by-side with those who conceptualized the idea, optimizing the value that each individual brings to the collaboration. Therefore, the collaborative approach between academic institutions and biopharmaceutical companies needs to expand.

In the past, such relationships were narrowly focused on technology transfer. And this approach has facilitated breakthroughs – innovation at Northwestern University, coupled with Pfizer's expertise, made Lyrica a clinical success for patients dealing with pain; early work on HIV/AIDS drugs at Emory helped transform that disease from its certain lethal outcome to a chronic condition today.

But we can and must do even better. Now, companies are tapping into the experience of academic research earlier and more comprehensively. For example, Pfizer announced earlier this year that it would invest $100 million with Boston-area hospitals and academic researchers in the hunt for new drugs. Sanofi is funding similar research efforts at Stanford University. Novartis is investing millions of dollars over the course of a decade to work with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to improve manufacturing technology.

Each of these transactions – and the ones that will follow – marks a movement in the right direction. Yet funding sources for innovation and global economic pressures along with fierce global competition in the life sciences are macro factors changing the landscape of scientific discovery in the new economy. This continued uncertainty serves as a reminder that we must ensure that our research dollars are used efficiently.

We believe a new model of collaborative effort between academic institutions and biopharmaceutical companies can lead the way and ignite a new flame of scientific discovery and innovation – all in service of the patients who are waiting and relying on us to create new therapies and innovate new solutions. The next decade of success will be defined by groups that have partnered effectively: biopharmaceuticals funding academic basic research, clinical sites engaging with industry, individuals reaching outside of their organization to match insights of scientists with the vast number of patient needs. At Onyx, we recognize that no one group can be so innovative that it cannot benefit from the work of others, and we plan to be among those who ensure that future therapies do not go unexplored for a lack of attention and partnership.

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