There's a new Viewpoint piece out in ACS Medicinal Chemistry Letters on academia and drug discovery. Donna Huryn of Pittsburgh is wondering about the wisdom of trying to reproduce a drug-company environment inside a university:
However, rather than asking how a university can mimic a drug discovery company, perhaps a better question is what unique features inherent in an academic setting can be taken advantage of, embellished, and fostered to promote drug discovery and encourage success? Rather than duplicating efforts already ongoing in commercial organizations, a university has an opportunity to offer unique, yet complementary, capabilities and an environment that fosters drug discovery that could generate innovative therapies, all the while adhering to its educational mission.
A corollary to this question is the converse—what aspects of drug discovery efforts within a university might be inconsistent with its primary goal of education and research, and can solutions be found to allow success in both?
Her take is that a university should take advantage of whatever special expertise its faculty have in particular areas of biology, pharmacology, etc., which could give it an advantage compared with the staff of a given pharma company. This isn't always easy, though, for cultural reasons:
While it seems that a university should have the tools to make significant contributions to drug discovery by taking advantage of the resident expertise, a cultural change might be required to foster an environment that values the teamwork required to make these efforts successful. Certainly funding agencies are moving in this direction with the establishment of multi-Principal Investigator designations that are designed to “maximize the potential of team science efforts”. Additionally, internal grants offered by academic institutions often insist that the proposed research involve multiple disciplines, departments, or even schools within the University. However, it seems that a concerted effort to “match-make” scientists with complementary expertise and an interest in drug discovery, finding ways to reward collaborative research efforts, and even, perhaps, establishing a project management-type infrastructure would facilitate a university-based drug discovery program.
She also makes the case the universities should use their ability to pursue higher-risk projects, given that they're not beholden to investors. I couldn't agree more - in fact, I think that's one of their biggest strengths. I'd define "high-risk" (by commercial standards) as any combination of (1) unusual mechanism of action, (2) little-understood disease area, (3) atypical chemical matter, and (4) a need for completely new assay technology. If you try to do all of those at once, you're going to land on your face, most likely. But some pharma companies don't even like to hear about one out of the four, and two out of four is going to be a hard sell.
And I think Huryn's broader point is well taken: we already have drug companies, so trying to make more of them inside universities seems like a waste of time and money. We need as many different approaches as we can get.