The mention of tropical diseases here the other day turns out to be timely, since the latest Nature has several articles on various ways for industry and academia to partner on attacking these. Some adjustments are needed every time you try this sort of thing, naturally. I particularly enjoyed this article. Here’s a sample:
“. . .translational research requires skills and a culture that universities typically lack, says Victoria Hale, chief executive of the non-profit drug company the Institute for OneWorld Health in San Francisco, California, which is developing drugs for visceral leishmaniasis, malaria and Chagas' disease. Academic institutions are often naive about what it takes to develop a drug, she says, and much basic research is therefore unusable. That's because few universities are willing to support the medicinal chemistry research needed to verify from the outset that a compound will not be a dead end in terms of drug development.
Academics will currently publish, say, a chemical scaffold, which they bill as a potential new target for parasites. "But had a medicinal chemist looked at it, he might immediately see that it will never work as a drug, because it has an inappropriate solubility or toxicological profile," says Els Torreele, a product manager at the DNDi. "Having a chemical structure that kills your parasite is only one of many aspects of what makes a drug a drug”.
Ted Bianco, director of technology transfer at the Wellcome Trust in London, agrees. "It's fine if a researcher is just using a compound as a ligand to probe a biological process," he says, "but don't kid yourself it's a drug unless you ask whether it has druggable properties." What's needed, says Hale, is a 'target product profile', which sets out the appropriate drug chemistry properties. "Getting a drug through regulatory processes is not just about how good your science is and how great your trials are; it is much more complex," says Hale. "And academics don't have the experience — they need to hire people from the drug industry."
This would make particularly interesting reading for the NIH-funding-discovers-all-the-new-drugs crowd. That idea seems pretty indestructible, although you’d think it would at least be dented by talking to the people who actually try to develop drugs (like me, or many readers of this blog), or to the people who are actually partnering with academia (see above).
I first came across this whole debate a few years ago, not having even realized that it was a debate at all. Even now, when I tell co-workers in the industry that there are people who believe that pretty much all drugs come right out of from publicly funded research, the usual result is an incredulous stare and a burst of laughter. That’s often followed by a question like “So what is it that I’m doing all day, then?”
Unfortunately, there really are occasional examples of companies scooping things up and making a killing on them – an example will follow in a coming blog post. And on the flip side, I have a recent example coming up of an academic compound which may well do exciting things in a dish, but has as much chance of becoming a drug as I do of becoming an Olympic pole-vault champion. And it’s not that I’m not reasonably aerodynamic – it’s just that there’s more to the pole vault than that, and there’s more to making a drug than working in vitro.