Beset by drug failures and limited late-stage pipelines, big pharmaceutical companies are increasingly looking outside their own walls for scientific discoveries by partnering with academic institutions.
GlaxoSmithKline last July entered into a five-year, $25m deal with Harvard to support stem-cell research, particularly in the areas of heart disease and cancer.
In June, AstraZeneca, the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company, signed a multi-year collaboration with Columbia University to develop novel therapeutics for metabolic diseases.
Meanwhile, last April Pfizer – the world’s largest biomedical and pharmaceutical company – formed a three-year, $14m collaboration with four research universities to study the field of diabetes.
Colleges and universities have become the next generation research and development labs for drugmakers at a time when they are battling increased generic competition for top-selling medicines, and a dearth of drugs in the pipeline.
“Pharma is feeling the pressure,” said Bob Higgins, professor of healthcare innovation at Harvard and co-founder of the Massachusetts-based venture capital firm Highland Capital.
Mr Higgins added: “If you are a pharmaceuticals executive looking at what’s coming off-patent in the next few years, and at what’s in Phase 3, the answer on both is bad. It is not just bad, it is scary.”
At the same time, universities are eager to receive additional sources of financial support.
In 2004 the White House called for reduced spending in order to compensate for tax cuts and a rising deficit.
However, since then, the budget of the National Institutes of Health, which funds the bulk of biomedical research in the US, has been flat or, adjusting for inflation, down.
Pharmaceutical companies have a long history of partnering with universities for drugs research and technology, but these new entrepreneurial arrangements represent a departure from the traditional model.
In previous industry-academic partnerships, pharmaceutical companies engaged university researchers for a certain line of research that benefited their projects, and that research was carried out exclusively by the university scientist.
New ventures, however, tend to involve teams of university and industry scientists working together on wide-ranging experiments to advance new drug discovery and stimulate basic research.
Jan Lundberg, executive vice-president of global discovery research at AstraZeneca, said the new agreements also differed from past partnerships because they laid out clearly how patents were arranged, as well as how publication rights were handled.
“It’s good to do that from the start so we don’t end up in unproductive conversations,” he said.
“Both sides need to go into this with open eyes.”
The partnerships require mindset adjustments for industry as well as academia, according to Corey Goodman, who leads the Pfizer Biotherapeutics and Bio Innovation Center.
Mr Goodman said: “In the past academics thought that pharma companies were too secretive, while pharma companies thought that academics lacked a firm understanding of the proprietary perspective and what it takes to move drugs from the laboratory into the clinic.
“Both sides have gotten over their hang-ups and have now realised that we need to break down the barriers.
“Pharma is realising it cannot do everything on its own.”
Mr Goodman, who is a former University of California research professor, said the partnerships were necessary to speed the pace of drug research and discovery.
“If big pharma stays siloed and the academic world stays siloed, that is a huge loss for human health,” he said.
“The bottom line is: we need each other.”