Better than Expected

Back in June, I wrote about GlaxoSmithKline’s (GSK’s) Discovery Partnerships with Academia program (DPAc) and its “competition” for participation called Discovery Fast Track (“The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”).   In the latter, academic researchers were invited to submit a therapeutic hypothesis with supporting data that was to be judged by a panel of GSK scientists on several factors, including the potential for addressing an unmet medical need (Discovery Fast Track).  GSK would then use the researcher’s assays and its compound library and screening platforms to identify active compounds, and, if there were success, set up a funded, multi-year DPAc collaboration with the aim of generating a clinical candidate that GSK would develop.  GSK has been running DPAc for about three years and had collaborations with a number of university research groups (e.g., in the UK with the universities in Cambridge on alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency and Edinburgh on severe acute pancreatitis and in the US with Vanderbilt on obesity and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center on muscular dystrophy).  The Fast Track approach was aimed at expanding the program in the US and finding researchers who may have data leading to new mechanisms of action for drugs.  I opined that the program may also fund drug discovery for diseases of the rest of the world (and typically ignored by big pharma) and wished them well.

That was the good.  The ugly I mentioned was that at least one university’s administration (at UCLA) had taken umbrage at the program’s perceived lack of safeguards for university IP and had advised its researchers not to apply.  I noted the concern was unfounded and that GSK had modified the program to get the buy-in of university tech transfer offices.  Fortunately, many universities did not share UCLA’s concern, and, as was announced last week by GSK, the company evaluated 142 entries from 70 universities, academic research institutions, and hospitals that addressed 17 therapeutic areas (FierceBiotech article and GSK press release).  Eight projects were chosen, and I was pleased to note that five may result in therapies for diseases and conditions occurring partly or predominately in low- and middle-income countries (for a reason not given, the group at Harvard declined having its project described).  The projects are:

  • anti-microbial agents, Sarah Ades, Pennsylvania State University;
  • drugs for malaria, Myles Akabas, Yeshiva University;
  • treatments for leishmaniasis (a parasitic disease afflicting about 500,000 persons per year with a 10% mortality rate, Lauren Brown and Scott Schaus, Boston University, and Jim McKerrow, University of California, San Francisco;
  • antibiotics to overcome resistance, Rahul Kohli, University of Pennsylvania; and
  • regulation of male fertility for contraception, Deborah O’Brien, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The press release also noted that work on the projects will begin immediately and the first screens are expected to be completed in mid-2014, meaning to me that the preclinical phase may start in 2015 and resulting clinical candidates may show up by 2018.

Of course, it would be great if GSK decided to expand DPAc by adding a component that created start-up companies to further develop the academic research it finds, for example, projects that had advanced beyond the screening stage and/or had candidate compounds in hand.  And it would be great if GSK did this for global health start-ups and greater (for me) if GSK did so in the Boston area.  Connecting of a few dots suggested to me that GSK may be headed in this direction.  GSK is definitively putting major money into starting companies out of academia.  At BIO 2013 in May, GSK and Avalon Ventures announced they were creating an investment fund with up to $465 million from GSK and $30 million from Avalon to start perhaps ten companies over three years in the San Diego area but based on technology from “anywhere” (Xconomy article).  It was reported that the GSK spokesperson, Lon Cardon, senior vice president for alternative discovery and development, said that the new fund is modeled in part on DPAc (Global University Investing article).  Apparently, GSK will have offices in San Diego and Boston (actually Kendall Square in Cambridge) to “help manage current external relationships and collaborations as well as identify and review new opportunities,” according to a GSK blog post last month (More than Medicine blog).  Although the post provided few details of the Cambridge office, I found a position listing GSK put up in February for a “DPAc Entrepreneur in Residence – Biology,” who would be “a member of the Alternative Discovery and Development (ADD) Boston Incubator, a new collaborative pilot organization in Cambridge, MA” ( posting).  One of the responsibilities of the new hire was “the creation of an exit strategy for the program [e.g., a DPAc project] to either transition into GSK or spin out into an independent entity.”  The job listing also indicated that each project would have an external funding of about $3 million (per year?) and an internal funding of $7.5 million, pretty substantial amounts.  So it is not unconceivable that, if the Boston Incubator includes an R&D facility (rather than only an office), global health-oriented projects in local academia, like the new DPAc-affiliated work at Boston University, could transition to it and eventually spin out as new ventures.  Cool.



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