MD Anderson continues to rethink how industry and academia can collaborate in deeper and broader ways to develop new drugs and bring improved diagnostics, devices, imaging agents and information solutions to the market for the benefit of cancer patients. Leading this charge is the institution's Strategic Industry Ventures (SIV). Ferran Prat, Ph.D., J.D., is vice president of that group and spoke with Cancer Frontline about the benefits of these collaborations in "moving the needle" of scientific discovery.
Two key functions of the office are collaborations and commercializations.
SIV assists companies seeking to collaborate with faculty, and vice versa. From arranging face-to-face meetings to producing “science days," the office helps to “connect the dots” where needed. It also initiates, negotiates and operationally manages strategic alliances and partnerships, which may take many forms, depending on the need.
SIV also manages the Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC). The primary goal is to establish license agreements with industry partners to transfer ideas and inventions developed by MD Anderson scientists to the commercial world.
Q: How many collaborations does MD Anderson currently have with industry? A: We currently have 10 collaborations that have been set up through our office. These include major pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, MedImmune, Johnson & Johnson, Amgen, Bayer and others.
Q: How many collaborations has MD Anderson had over the years?
A: Many, since helping pharmaceutical companies with their clinical development efforts is important to helping our patients. But few of those collaborations were of a substantial size. They were typically isolated clinical trials or master agreements without a firm commitment.
Q: Are collaborations like the ones your office has initiated common at other institutions?
A: Not really. Most institutions still operate the same way we used to operate: on a single-trial basis and/or performing short-term pre-clinical experiments that don't carry significant funding.
Q: Why are such collaborations occurring? Have they always? A: We did have alliances that carried an aspirational commitment of working together, but the formal partnerships where there is a firm, long-term and substantial commitment by our industry partner are a new phenomenon. The reason that these collaborations are occurring now is that we're just now realizing the potential. In that sense, the collaboration between Bristol-Myer Squibb (BMS) and the department of Leukemia was an eye-opener for many of us. It taught us that a different way of dealing with industry not only is possible but very much desirable for all parties involved — especially our patients.
Q: What is the benefit in regards to scientific discovery? A: The whole issue is about “moving the needle.” The problem with one-off studies, especially if they are investigator-initiated, is that the study gets performed, gets published and tends to get forgotten — even if the quality of the study was very high. There are exceptions, of course, but it’s the most common outcome. It's very difficult for one-off studies to change the standard of care. If we want to maximize the chances that our work will change the standard of care, we need long-term, highly resourced initiatives that'll go deep in exploring a given area. For example, in the AstraZeneca ovarian cancer collaboration, we are fortunate to have some of the best brains in the institution, plus the totality of one of the hottest pipelines in industry, and the substantial resources that AstraZeneca is bringing to the table. The collaboration benefits from MD Anderson’s highly efficient clinical operational machine. This all adds up to having a solid chance of moving the needle and changing the way ovarian cancer is treated.
Q: How do patients benefit? A: For example, if it wasn’t for the BMS/Leukemia collaboration, who knows how long it would take for the oncology community to find out the best immunotherapy combos in these challenging indications. Such collaborations will help fulfill our goal of finding those combinations in the fastest way possible.
Q: Are there any ethical considerations? A: These agreements are clinical trials that are subject to the same IRB rules as single trials, and are fully reviewed by the institution's Legal and Compliance department.
Q: What are some “success” stories that have already resulted from collaboration betwenn MD Anderson and industry? A: The most vivid one is the Amgen collaboration. It all started with a call from Amgen to Dr. Guillermo Garcia-Manero in Leukemia, asking for samples from patients with myelodysplastic syndrome. His response was “I’m not interested in being just a sample provider, but if we could do something bigger, that would be attractive for helping our patients.” Credit goes to him for not taking the easy route. Other investigators would have sent the samples, received some data, published the paper and moved on. But his efforts paid off.
In collaboration with Dr. Samir Hanash in Clinical Cancer Prevention, our group and senior people at Amgen, we started exploring possibilities, and that initial request turned into a really exciting and comprehensive collaboration with the goal of discovering and validating novel targets, generating new drugs, testing them pre-clinically and taking them to patients. All of this will be mapped out from the very beginning, with clear roles and responsibilities. This is obviously very different from just sending samples.
Q: Do these collaborations account for a significant amount of funding for research activities at MD Anderson?
A: Not yet, but that's changing because of the headwinds we are facing in terms of National Institutes of Health and National Cancer Institute funding and decreasing clinical margins. By the end of the year, we'll have totaled more than $50 million in funding commitments through strategic relationships, and we are constantly working to provide our faculty with additional opportunities.