By Suzanne Elvidge, Contributing Writer
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Collaborations between academia and industry are becoming more common as biopharma companies, both large and small, see the value gained from different approaches.
The biopharma industry is changing, as outsourcing and collaborating becomes a more common route to drug development. Biopharma companies are starting to recognize the value of tapping into the wealth of experience and expertise that is academia.
There will be challenges, of course, as the two sides learn to work together, but the benefits in the long term work both ways, as working with industry can help support research for academia too. As always, the best collaborations will be those that benefit both sides.
What's The Driver?
The aim for academia-industry collaborations is improving scientific knowledge about diseases, drugs, and their pathways, as well as finding ways to apply this knowledge practically that will benefit patients. A key driver for the biopharma industry is to broaden the application of marketed drugs. Companies developing drugs generally want to get their products to market as quickly as possible to begin to recoup their investments. One route to speeding up approval is to carry out monotherapy trials in large populations. Doing so provides the type of data that regulatory authorities require. However, particularly in areas such as cancer, effective treatment relies on combinations of drugs rather than single treatments.
The Combination Alliance utilizes the Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre (ECMC) network launched in 2006, to collaborate with pharmaceutical companies to run early-phase combination trials of cancer therapeutics. These allow investigators from academia to run clinical trials that look at how combinations of different therapeutics can work, often in smaller and more focused populations. These smaller trials benefit industry by providing the early tolerability and rationale from pharmacodynamic endpoints that the biopharma companies need to plan their pipelines and include combination options for broader patient benefit. "Academics benefit because they can access the drugs earlier, and patients benefit from early access too, particularly those in countries outside the large-scale regulatory studies," says Hazel Jones, head of combination therapies at Cancer Research UK.
The ECMC network is backed by Cancer Research UK and the U.K. health authorities to support infrastructure for translational studies, hence driving the development of new therapies to bring benefits to patients faster. The Combinations Alliance began as a partnership with AstraZeneca in 2010. As of July 2014, it includes 14 clinical trials covering 11 compounds, and agreements with Eli Lilly, Astex, MedImmune and further discussions with multiple pharma partners on-going.
"Advances in cancer treatment are driven by drug combinations, and the ECMC network allows academics and industry partners to discuss ideas and suggest combinations of drugs," says Jones. "The industry collaborations mean that the academics may have the opportunity to pick and choose across the different companies' portfolios to create the best possible combinations. This allows research to move away from combining known drugs and toward novel-novel combinations which could have further benefit for cancer patients."
By working together, academia and industry can achieve important breakthroughs, but the relationships have to be managed to ensure that the benefits are maintained long term. For academia-industry collaborations to work, companies have to be prepared to be more open at a much earlier stage. Confidentiality also needs to be built into the alliances, including nondisclosure agreements and working in the precompetitive space. GlaxoSmithKline's approach includes open innovation, sharing precompetitive information. "We see a value in sharing best practices," says Malcolm Skingle, director, academic liaison, GlaxoSmithKline. "We gain from tapping into an expanded science network and learning more about the science underpinning our molecules."
Reaping The Benefits
The most effective and long-lasting academia- industry collaborations will be those that benefit both sides, but also where both sides bring resources in an equal relationship. The benefits for industry include access to interesting and cutting- edge research, knowledge on basic science, and the opportunity to make contact with key opinion leaders who provide a range of different viewpoints.
"Companies collaborate with academia to tap into their research and platforms — this could be described as ‘try before you buy.' Collaboration also provides an opportunity to impart and exchange the knowledge that drives science or creates a larger pool of people who can think about a problem," says Skingle. "We gain a deep understanding of the biology from academia, and we provide scientific direction and access to resources."
Academic support and collaboration is of great benefit to small companies, which don't have the range and depth of resources in-house, as Simon Fredriksson, president and CEO at Olink, explains. "For us, collaborations with academia are a vital part of what we do. Through collaborations, we get the opportunity to ‘test drive' technology in the real world, which would be very hard without access to academics."
Academia also benefits by gaining access to a range of proprietary platforms and compound libraries, along with early-stage and industrial-scale technologies. The academic partners can also benefit from industry's applied therapeutic knowledge and may be able to access new funding sources, whether directly from larger companies or as part of a collaborative application with smaller companies.
"We are a small company, and so while we can't invest large quantities of money, we can bring our time and skills to collaborations," says David Bejker, president and CEO at Affibody AB. "We invest in-kind rather than in cash — we can raise money together."
Collaborating with industry allows academics to have the opportunity to think more broadly and to put their knowledge to practical applications by transferring their innovations and translating them into uses in healthcare. "The academic research can push forward the scientific frontiers and test the theory behind the drug's activity in combinations, focusing on synergistic effects and blocking resistance mechanisms," says Jones.
Meeting The Challenges
There are differences in mindsets between academia and industry, and this can lead to challenges in the burgeoning relationships. These include building trust between the partners and understanding not only how much information to share but also when and how it will be used. However, being aware of these up front will help both partners work together to build a fruitful collaboration.
"Biopharma companies are primarily interested in successfully translating research from drug discovery into the clinic, and they focus on following the positive results. Academics tend to want to know more about the science, about how and why the drugs do (or don't) work," says Jones. "The Cancer Research UK Drug Development Office sees both perspectives and can act as a bridge between the two, setting up initiatives such as the ECMC Combination Alliance and the Clinical Development Partnership (for deprioritized projects)."
One of the key drivers within academia is the need to publish — to support funding streams and to maintain the profile of the academic institution. According to Bejker, this can be a sticking point in a relationship, as biopharma companies do need to exclude certain pieces of information to protect their IP. Skingle sees the flip-side of this, however. "Published papers produced as part of collaborations have a higher impact than those from either academia or industry alone," says Skingle. "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts."
Another challenge faced by academia is its reliance on biopharma companies' pipeline decisions, which can result in drug development ceasing for strategic rather than efficacy reasons. These can be solved, or at least mitigated, through open communication. Sometimes ideas from academia are too visionary and have to be distilled into a practical and pragmatic form by the company.
Who's Doing It?
Collaborations between academia and industry have benefits for both small and large companies. GlaxoSmithKline includes discovery performance units (DPUs) made up of 10 to 70 people, and each is responsible for a specific area. "Our DPUs can source R&D internally or externally, and the proportion varies. For example, all of the research in the ophthalmology DPU is external, as part of a £6 million [around $10.1 million], six-year collaboration with Moorfields Eye Hospital, London," says Skingle. "GlaxoSmithKline has more collaborations with academia than any other U.K. company. This includes 310 undergraduates in our laboratories and IT offices and 240 Ph.D. CASE (Collaborative Awards in Science and Engineering) studentships." For GlaxoSmithKline, the collaboration works both ways. For example, scientists from the company go into universities as visiting professors, taking in information about science with a different perspective.
From a big company to a smaller one — Swedish company Olink was founded by academics from Uppsala University and relies on ongoing relationships. As Fredriksson explains, "Collaborations between academia and industry are essential for a company like Olink to generate products. Academics have lots of ideas that could be commercial, and they need to think about how these ideas can translate into products and services. That way they can become useful for the general public who often actually paid for the research through taxes."
Another smaller Swedish company, Affibody, has a long collaboration with Uppsala University, including the development of ABY-025, a small reengineered Affibody molecule targeting the HER2 receptor. A radio-labelled form of this molecule is in Phase 2 clinical trials as a breast cancer diagnostic. The relationships between academia and industry are likely to be a cornerstone of research in the future. As Skingle concludes, "Big science needs multiple parties involved, sharing both the risk and the reward."