By Rob Wright, Chief Editor, Life Science Leader
Follow Me On Twitter @RfwrightLSL
In November 2015, Boehringer Ingelheim (BI) announced its new five-year R&D strategy, which included a commitment to invest $11 billion. Clive Wood, Ph.D., SVP of discovery research at BI, sat down with Life Science Leader to explain how the company is redefining its R&D strategy in order to maximize internal potential and expand research “for and beyond therapeutic area borders.”
WHY HAS BI DECIDED TO REDEFINE ITS DISCOVERY RESEARCH STRATEGY?
We’ve had a number of strategic initiatives (e.g., Disease Map 2025 looks at aligning diseases, unmet medical need, and scientific opportunities), but I think we’ve gotten to a point where the next step needed to be transformative. In the past, we had a very functionbased organization. And while this was very successful, our goal now is to evolve into an organization that is more customer-centric, which requires being flexible and agile and based around innovation units as well as therapeutic areas. In addition, we realize that many innovations come from the outside world. So in our redefined model, we wanted to communicate better across internal therapeutic areas and have more significant engagement externally.
DESCRIBE THE NEW DISCOVERY RESEARCH STRATEGY.
It is collaborative and involves three guiding principles:
- Building on our strengths
- Creating synergies
- Capturing emerging science
To build on our strength, we are focusing on four key therapeutic areas:
- Cardio-metabolic diseases
- CNS diseases
- Immunology and respiratory diseases
Despite identifying these four key therapeutic areas within BI, our goal is to build synergies in and across these different areas where diseases have common mechanisms, which I’ll elaborate on more a bit later. One of the first things we did was to create one global cardio-metabolic disease research function (located in Biberach, Germany, and Ridgefield, CT) by merging two units that previously operated somewhat independently (i.e., cardiovascular and metabolic diseases). The idea behind this is that better metabolic disease outcomes require being cognizant of the role played by cardiovascular complications. We are exploring things such as nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) and obesity, just to name a couple. To broaden our presence here, we have embarked on a series of new partnerships (i.e., Circuit Therapeutics, Hydra Biosciences, University of Michigan and ETH Zurich, and the NIH), as well as asset acquisitions (e.g., Pharmaxis’ PXS4728A for NASH).
We also combined the respiratory and immunology/ inflammation departments into one new global therapeutic research area called immunology and respiratory diseases. The core of our research is focused on four key themes:
- Immune checkpoint modulation
- Dysfunctional innate immune effector function
- Aberrant tissue remodeling
- Mucosal barrier injury and repair
Some of the key collaborations in this therapeutic area include partnerships with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, Mass General, Scripps Research Institute, and Weill Cornell School of Medicine.
With CNS diseases, we are focusing on key symptom domains, such as cognitive impairment and impulsivity, and are using tools like electrophysiological imaging and optogenetic methodologies to link symptoms and behaviors. Some of the companies helping us with our CNS research initiatives include Circuit Therapeutics and Arena Pharmaceuticals.
Finally, BI’s oncology research therapeutic area has two primary fields of focus:
- Immune cell-directed therapies (e.g., tumor-specific T cells, cancer vaccines)
- Cancer cell-directed therapies (e.g., growth signaling, epigenetic regulation)
Some of the key oncology collaborations include the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Vanderbilt University, Eureka Therapeutics, CureVac, and ViraTherapeutics.
While our discovery research department’s geographical footprint did not necessarily change, our philosophy of how we work did. And while I would say we have many leaders actively involved in the planning of these strategic initiatives, it wasn’t the approach of developing something “on high” and then trickling it down, but more of an inclusive approach involving all levels.
"One of the first things we did was to create one global cardio-metabolic disease research function."
Clive Wood, Ph.D.
SVP Discovery Research, Boehringer Ingelheim
HOW DID YOU START THE PROCESS OF REDEFINING THIS STRATEGY?
When we first began, I had only been on board for about six months, and the first thing we did was to assess the landscape. As previously mentioned, we started by developing a set of guiding principles (i.e., building on our strengths, creating synergies, and capturing emerging science). We focused on the science, not technologies. For example, I feel very passionately about immunology and mechanisms of inflammation, as these are central to a wide range of therapeutic areas. This is why we opted to build an internal platform that facilitated this. So while we have biologists focused on therapeutic area research within specific disciplines, at the same time we have a group that works across the therapeutic areas to focus expertise and resources.
While the platforms create synergies internally, our new Research Beyond Borders (RBB) widens our view to target external science and technology. This group is charged with working globally across all research sites and therapeutic areas. We are locating “scouts” in strategic innovative hot spots around the world (e.g., Boston) and anticipate adding others as well. The RBB team aims to create new capabilities for BI’s drug discovery and development in areas such as the (gut) microbiome, hearing disorders, regenerative medicine, and gene therapy. The RBB team already has established a multi-institute collaborative research model that brings together leading microbiome experts to study intestinal barrier disruption and enhanced permeability through an iterative process of bacterial stimuli, activation of host immunity, and exacerbation of chronic tissue damage. In Japan and China, RBB launched projects with experts in regenerative medicine from Kyoto and China Southeast University to explore hearing loss, the most common form of sensory impairment.
BEYOND RBB, WHAT ELSE IS BI DOING TO REDEFINE RESEARCH DISCOVERY?
There has been an increase in precompetitive publicprivate partnerships (PPP). BI is working with several PPPs in defined areas with a goal of sharing the results. Believe it or not, we have been active in 27 different projects. For example, we have contributed in excess of $33 million to the EU’s Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) to discover new biomarkers, improve drug safety, and better engage with patients. BI is also an active member of the Structural Genomics Institute (SGC) which facilitates open-access research. Other PPPs critical to our research discovery efforts include the Division of Signal Transduction Therapy (DSTT) and the GPCR Consortium, which is coordinating studies of medically important proteins known as G-protein coupled receptors, while making the data available publicly.
We also have pursued several crowdsourcing projects (e.g., studying new translation models of psychiatric diseases, novel hypotheses on the contribution of epigenetics to respiratory diseases) and are working closely with brokers and incubators to discover novel therapeutic concepts.