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The added value of university-based drug discovery research

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On July 16, 2018

Small (and medium-sized) pharmaceutical/biotech companies usually focus all of their efforts on a narrow, specialized therapeutic area primarily for the sake of survival and maintaining their uniqueness but also driven by a dream of delivering a first-in-class drug for that rare disease. This default survival strategy offers its own advantages in certain aspects (e.g. protecting their intellectual property rights on new compounds) but can also be counter-productive since it can involve isolation. The business of pharma industry is perhaps one of the few cases where the concept of “the-bigger-the-better” holds true. Even then, the industry is coming under increasing scrutiny in recent years because of the lack of progress in the approval of new drugs that can justify the increased investment in R&D. In addition, the ever-expanding and deepening understanding of disease biology did not result in a bulging drug pipeline or the emergence of a significant new player in the pharmaceutical industry. As a result, mergers and acquisitions remain to be the trend as ever. It all means that it is riskier and demands an increasing amount of capital investment to start a new venture in drug discovery. This fact alone is sufficient for small companies to look for close and lasting partnerships for their research efforts ideally as soon as they venture on the perilous journey to drug development.


Start-up companies usually have their roots in the academia and their fundamental knowledge drives from that sector. Therefore, in order to survive and thrive in that more competitive world, I think it is prudent of them to maintain their close ties or form new collaborations with relevant academic research groups. This is a typical case of win-win partnership in that the university research centers will benefit from the much-needed funds while the companies take full advantage of expertise and knowhow mostly paid for by another employer. Of course there are well known pre-conceptions about the academia that can put off some from considering these institutions as valuable partners including short-term targets (e.g. just to write the next term paper), the “publish-or-perish” mentality that allows little time or interest for the generation of intellectual property, lack of industry-standard infrastructure, etc. However, the academia inherently pursue knowledge just for the sake of knowing (but also to train the next generation of scientists) – a blessing to an extent because it is only in this spirit that fundamental knowledge can be generated in therapeutic areas that have traditionally been disregarded by the big pharma as high-risk and low return or target too difficult to pursue.


Further, there is also an unmistakable shift in academic research culture in recent years. Many university departments are increasingly adopting a translational research approach primarily demanded by funding agencies but also because they realized that it is the best way of leveraging the wealth of fundamental knowledge and know-how that they have accumulated over the years for the understanding of disease processes. The university I work at, the Free University of Brussels – VUB, has a Diabetes Research Center with over 40 years of experience in pioneering research and clinical management of the disease (mainly type 1 diabetes). What had long been just the study of beta cell biology and pathogenesis of diabetes grew out to be one of the most comprehensive knowledge centers in the world of diabetes research. At the moment, the Center has a registry that manages tens of thousands of data and biological samples from patients and their relatives, runs flow cytometry and high-content screening (my specialty) core facilities and conducts a pre-clinical (animal models) as well as clinical trial in cell transplantation for the treatment of type 1 diabetes. It has a long-established experience of collaborating with international players in target characterization and biological or small molecule drug discovery and development. Collaboration with pharmaceutical/biotech companies is either based on the application of our patented drug screening assay or through partnership in multi-partner international projects.


Obviously, there are several such well-organized and dedicated research groups in the major universities in Vlaanderen. However, with some exceptions, these vast resources are not sufficiently tapped into by (local) small biotech companies. Not sure if these companies realize that despite its alleged weaknesses the academic world provides a unique combination of multidisciplinary research, conducted by highly skilled people with integrity, in a culture that encourages individual freedom of thinking and creativity. To be clear, academic knowledge centers I am referring to are not just those in biological, (bio)chemical and pharmacological areas but also computational, bioinformatics and statistical fields. Thus, by partnering with the academic sector at the earliest stages of drug discovery, small biotech companies could not only considerably reduce the risk of investing in a compound of unknown worth for an extended period of time but also benefit enormously by adding value to their new molecular entity before the inevitable involvement of large pharmaceutical companies for approval and marketing purposes.

Last modified: July 16, 2018

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