Alex Philippidis Senior News Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News
How much money companies will allocate to such partnerships remains to be seen as they trim overall R&D spending.
As discussed in our story “Academic Organizations Try to Step Up Their R&D Game,” the share of academia’s life science R&D funding coming from industry has dipped over the past two decades from 7% to 6%. With a few major industry players saying that they expect to cut R&D budgets in the near future, the question becomes: will they give more or less of that money to academics?
The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), one of the nation’s largest recipients of NIH money, spent $1.028 billion on R&D spending during FY ’10. Industry accounted for 7% of that total. UCSF’s R&D budget has just about doubled since 2001, when it spent $514.2 million in research and industry accounted for 6.5% of that.
At UCSF and other academic institutions, industry spending as a proportion of total R&D could rise if recent collaborative activity pans out as planned. Here’s a look at a few partnerships and what their potential may be in terms of money for the academics.
In January UCSF came to terms with sanofi-aventis on two agreements: an oncology partnership designed to accelerate research through Phase II trials, and an effort promoting research in pharmacological science and several therapeutic areas such as oncology, aging, diabetes, and inflammation.
Sanofi-aventis is also interested in helping UCSF shape research at early stages, rather than fund what already exists. The company is the first industry partner for UCSF’s 14-year-old Program for Breakthrough Biomedical Research (PBBR), which awards funding to projects deemed to show a potential high impact, greater creativity, and an innovative approach to scientific discovery.
“The idea is that within 12 to 18 months, it will be clear whether or not the product of that research will be at a stage where having a collaboration around it makes sense,” Teri Melese, Ph.D., director, research technologies and alliances for UCSF’s School of Medicine, told GEN.
A joint selection committee of sanofi-aventis and UCSF representatives each year will award grants for up to five projects. After a year the start-ups win a first right to negotiate a follow-on agreement. It could allow for an extension of time on the initial research, a formal collaboration with sanofi, or a licensing agreement depending on investigators’ progress, Dr. Melese explained.
Last November UCSF and Pfizer formed a partnership focused on target validation. The deal could net UCSF as much as $85 million over five years, including milestone payments as well as research-support funding.
Pfizer is slashing R&D spending to between $8 billion and $8.5 billion this year and between $6.5 billion and $7 billion in 2012. Yet at Mission Bay, Pfizer is preparing to open, later this year, a Center for Therapeutic Innovation (CTI) for joint research with the university.
“The CTI-San Francisco is anticipating starting five to eight projects each year with researchers at UCSF during the first three years of an initial five-year partnership,” Pfizer and UCSF have noted.
Near Mission Bay, UCSF’s Viral Diagnostics and Discovery Center (VDDC) earlier this year saw its funding renewed by another corporate sponsor, Abbott Diagnostics. In addition to funds, Abbott also provides viral samples for use in VDDC’s research in return for commercial rights to discoveries produced at the center. Both sides reason that the viral research is so early-stage it is unlikely to win NIH funding.
Where UCSF has identified a corporate partner it wants to collaborate with in the future but has yet to identify the specifics of research, Dr. Melese explained that the university will sign a master-sponsored research agreement. UCSF has 16 such arrangements with companies that include Bayer HealthCare and Genentech.
California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences
UCSF is one of three UC institutions comprising the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3); the others are UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz. QB3 is in its fourth year of a partnership with Pfizer that has generated $3.5 million a year in sponsored research.
“It handles everything from computational approaches to modeling protein to target discovery to new platform technologies. It’s a very broad effort to tie research discoveries and opportunities in the university into research interests at Pfizer,” Douglas Crawford, Ph.D., QB3’s director of industry alliances and associate executive director, told GEN.
QB3 houses the UCSF Small Molecule Discovery Center, where the university and Genentech are working to discover and develop drug candidates for neurodegenerative diseases under a partnership signed last year. The deal could pay UCSF more than $13 million if development and commercial milestones are met.
QB3 also offers support to start-ups through its QB3 Mission Bay Incubator Network, which nurtures 37 early-stage companies in three locations. A fourth will open May 15 in West Berkeley, CA, in a venture with Wareham Development.
Also, over the past year, QB3 has joined with investors to expand Mission Bay Capital, a seed venture fund it established last year to support early-stage life science companies that were set up based on UC discoveries. Mission Bay Capital has made four investments in companies, with a fifth to occur soon, and has grown to $11.3 million under management.
University of Southern California
Other efforts to involve industry in academic R&D offer different aproaches from those employed by UCSF. At the University of Southern California, the USC Stevens Institute for Innovation is one of four university-connected institutions recently selected to participate in the Coulter Translational Research Partnership Program. The Wallace H. Coulter Foundation will contribute $667,000 of the $1 million annual funding for the program, with the remainder coming from USC Stevens, USC Viterbi, and the Los Angeles Basin Clinical Translational Science Institute.
“The USC Stevens Institute will help recruit industry leaders, entrepreneurs, and the investment community to advise and mentor the researchers in this program, helping guide their ideas to a practical application that will improve the life of patients,” USC spokesman Ian Murphy told GEN. Murphy said the foundation will support projects for the discovery and development of new treatments, tools, diagnostics, or technology platforms, and even devices.
Massachusetts Life Sciences Center
In Massachusetts, two academic-industry collaborations were funded this year by the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC), a quasi-public agency created by the state to oversee its $1 billion Massachusetts Life Sciences Initiative. MLSC’s Cooperative Research Matching Grants program late last month awarded $250,000 for each of two years to two partnerships, which were selected from 21 applicants.
Philips Healthcare and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) will work toward a combined optical and mammographic imaging device capable of making multimodality breast imaging readily available for x-ray systems used nationwide. RXi Pharmaceuticals and University of Massachusetts Medical School will focus on a new treatment for ALS using self-delivering rxRNA (sd-rxRNA) to silence the SOD1 gene, which is involved in the disease.
“This MLSC grant was a lifesaver for this project,” Anastasia Khvorova, Ph.D., RXi’s CSO, told GEN. “We hope to move from discovery to preclinical research sometime next year, so this funding was absolutely critical.”
MLSC is only one funding source for the ALS research. Additional funds come from a six-month grant of about $300,000, which has the potential to be extended into a second-phase grant of $2 million if certain milestones are achieved, as well as what Dr. Khvorova said was “a couple of hundred thousand dollars” from The Angel Fund, the ALS Therapy Alliance, and Project ALS, a consortium of scientists at multiple institutions focusing on the disease.
In return for the MLSC funding, Philips Healthcare and RXi must match the MLSC funding, all of which goes to the academic partner. The companies can do so through cash or in-kind services, an option designed to ensure that smaller companies can use the program. Both companies will pay out 30% of their $500,000 due over two years as cash, the rest in-kind.
MLSC has awarded grants to six academic-industrial partnerships totaling $3.7 million in the 2008–09 state fiscal year. One of them was a collaboration between RXi and two other PIs at UMass Medical. No such grants were awarded in 2009–10, since the state’s budget squeeze prompted MLSC to fund other grant programs.
Collaborating Through Social Networking
Also in Massachusetts is an example of how industry dollars help fund the study of disease in ways that go beyond establishing research collaborations. EMD Serono recently awarded $1.5 million to MGH, a teaching hospital, to launch the Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Discovery Forum, a social network for researchers focused on that disease. The grant will cover the network’s first three years of operation.
“It’s primarily targeted at research people and not even clinicians,” Timothy W. Clark, the MS Discovery Forum’s principal investigator, told GEN. “It’s really not so much about treatment, although it could be. It’s really about research toward the detailed pathology of the disease and the ability to develop cures for the disorder.”
Clark said the forum is expected to launch this fall. EMD Serono and MGH explained that the social network will offer an expert-curated genetic epidemiology database, scientific articles and reviews, industry news, discussion forums, and a membership directory. The forum has its own executive editor and partners that include Accelerated Cure Project for Multiple Sclerosis, a nonprofit organization.
“It has a much more rapid turnaround than a journal, and it’s a good way to discuss things,” Clark pointed out. “It’s like an ongoing virtual conference.”
Industry is expected to remain interested in teaming up with academia and other institutions on research. How much money they will spend remains to be seen. And besides the traditional collaboration arrangements, we are likely to see new types of deal structures and initiatives. Projects like the MS Discovery Forum suggest that at least some companies envision collaborations beyond the lab.
Alex Philippidis is senior news editor at Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., and Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News.