Plenge Lab
Date posted: September 15, 2016 | Author: | No Comments »

Categories: Drug Discovery


The partnership between Academic-industry is one of my favorite topics. As someone who has spent most of his time in academics, and only recently joined industry (well, three years ago), I still feel as if I have a good perspective on both sides. I have written about my personal perspective about making the switch from academics into industry (blog post here), and I have referenced articles related to different perspectives on academics and industry (here, here).

A recent perspective in Cell Metabolism by Morris Birnbaum, Chief Scientific Officer of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Diseases at Pfizer, adds important points to this conversation (links here, here). Specifically, Birnbaum discusses obstacles to relationships between academics and industry, and what can be done to make the relationships optimally productive.

[Disclaimer: I am a Merck/MSD employee. The opinions I am expressing are my own and do not necessarily represent the position of my employer.]

Birnbaum starts with an important premise:

Let’s start with something on which everyone agrees: the best hope for the development of novel therapeutics is through effective collaboration between the academic and private sectors, the latter including the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries.” 

I certainly agree with this point, but not everyone does. There are some in the non-profit sector who think that drug discovery can be done without a partnership with the for-profit part of our dynamic biopharma ecosystem (Nature article here, blog post countering this position by Derek Lowe here). I won’t comment further here, as I accept Birnbaum’s premise.

Birnbaum then goes on to describe his perspective on topics such as:

lack of understanding by each party of the other’s motivations and career pressures… papers versus drug candidates

When representatives from drug companies approach academic scientists in the hope of working together, they should be asking for new science, not targets.”

An additional aspect of research that is standard fare at drug companies but generally anathema to academics is timelines governed by milestones.

academics often proceed under the principle that once grant funding is received [from industry], there is considerable flexibility in what studies are performed, as long as the principal investigator can demonstrate the merit of the experiments at the time of renewal or final report

it is also reasonable for academic partners to share in the financial reward of a successful drug…[but] academic institutions have to be realistic about expectations for financial reward when the pharmaceutical company incurs almost all of the risk and expense, which frequently can exceed hundreds of millions of dollars

the pharmaceutical scientist should realize that in most cases, with the exception of structures, there is little danger in sharing data and insights with his or her academic collaborator

For me, the key is to find the sweet spot that motivates both parties. I fully agree with Birnbaum that both parties must be equally compelled toward the same endpoint of a research project, and that both parties share a sense of urgency towards achieving project milestones. Further, if any one party feels as if they are simply providing a service for the other, rigor mortis sets in. The partnership is dead.

My recommendation to those in academics and industry is to ask themselves a simple question: “What resources will the partnership bring to me / my organization that I could not otherwise get elsewhere?” For academic scientists, this must go beyond funding for their lab’s research or access to a small molecule library. For industry scientists, this must go beyond technical support for assay development or knowledge on a topic for which they have little in-house expertise. If both parties truly believe that a partnership is the only way to achieve a common goal, and if both parties agree on realistic milestones to achieve those goals, then the partnership often works.

Birnbaum concludes:

For the public-private collaboration to be successful, there must be a free and open interchange of information and alignment on common goals. There must exist trust between the parties conducive to sharing ideas as well as data and reagents. The two research teams need to meet frequently to exchange data and trade viewpoints; the academic lab cannot be given a research plan and simply generate reports every 6 months. When this private-public collaboration does work, success is facilitated by the distinct but complementary goals of the two parties: publication for the academic and a potential therapeutic molecule for the drug hunter. Both parties’ interests can be readily protected and still work productively together in the advance of science toward new therapies.”


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