Nature Reviews Drug Discovery has an interesting survey of academic drug discovery (summary at SciBx here). The authors were motivated, they say, by the large number of opinions and impressions about this topic, with a corresponding lack of actual data - I think they've done everyone a service.
What they found was 78 centers of academic drug discovery (in one form or another) in the US. Cancer and infectious diseases are the most widely worked-on, but tropical and orphan diseases make a strong showing (and I'm glad to see this; they should). Another interesting stat: "49% of targets being investigated are based on unique discoveries that had little validation in the literature".
But when we say "drug discovery", we should really be saying "very early stage drug discovery", with little or no actual development to follow it up. The technologies that these centers report having are almost entirely in the early part of the pipeline - screening, in vitro assay, target ID. Capacity for hit-to-lead chemistry is claimed by 72% of the centers that responded (70% response rate), which, the authors say, shows that ". . .the integration of chemistry into (academic drug discovery) centers has progressed considerably". On the other hand, only half report the ability to do in vivo assays, and less than half can do any metabolism and/or pharmacokinetics. For those who don't do this sort of thing for a living, it's worth pointing out that these functions (all of which are valuable) still only take you to the stage where you can say that you're really getting started.
So what stage are these academic projects, for the most part? Assay development and screening, for the most part - even those places with PK and the like don't have much at all in that stage yet, which, the authors say, reflects the fact that most of these centers haven't been operating for very long. (32 of the 56 centers that provided a founding date gave one between 2003 and 2008). And I particularly enjoyed this paragraph:
"Questions regarding comparisons between academic and industrial drug discovery evoked intense and informative responses. Academia was perceived to be much stronger than industry in disease biology expertise and innovation, and was considered to be better aligned with societal goals. . . By contrast, industry was perceived to be much stronger in assay development and screening, and particularly in medicinal chemistry."
I would really enjoy seeing some of the more intense responses! But a very large divide between academia and industry is apparent when the respondees were asked about their centers' priorities. Number 3 was generating intellectual property, but number one? Publications. Half of the centers say that only a quarter of their staff (or less) have industrial experience, but my impression is that these numbers are shifting rapidly - for one thing, a lot of good, experienced people from industry are becoming much more available than they ever thought they'd be.
It's also important to realize that most of this work is being done on a very modest scale. When asked about funding and expenditures, you see a long-tail distribution. A handful of centers report total expenditures in the low tens of millions, but 57% of the responding centers report $2 million or less. I'm not sure if that's per year, or total since the centers were founded, to be honest, but either way, it's not much money at all by the standards of drug research, even the early-stage stuff. Looked at another way, though, if much comes out of these efforts at all, they'll have been cost-effective for sure.
But at that point, they're facing the same problems that the rest of us do. The SciBx piece quotes Bruce Booth, whose blog I link to here regularly. And he's right on target:
“At the end of the day, it's not typically the initial chemical matter that plagues a startup spinning out of academia. Instead it's the validity of the initial biologic hypothesis and whether the biology is relevant to disease"