“The hardest problems of pure and applied science can only be solved by the open collaboration of the worldwide scientific community.”
Industry partnerships prove to be symbiotic relationships that benefit patients
The myth exists of a lone scientist toiling away in a lab late at night in search of that one magical moment when everything clicks and a life-saving discovery is born.
Yet any modern-day biomedical investigator will tell you that it takes not only a team, but several teams to further scientific advancements that can lead to potential therapies for diseases such as cancer.
Collaboration across medical disciplines and among academic institutions has never been more prevalent, necessary and productive. Flat federal budgets and ever-more sophisticated and expensive lab equipment only add to this need. Read any major medical journal and you’re likely to see a profusion of professional titles representing the various institutions and people who collaborated on research projects.
Nowhere are joint efforts evolving faster than in medical academia and at pharmaceutical companies. This growing phenomenon has been occurring for some time, but efforts to combine forces are starting to make major inroads into the development of new therapies in big ways.
At MD Anderson, an office to attract, maintain and grow such collaborations was created in 2013. Strategic Industry Ventures, headed by Ferran Prat, Ph.D., J.D., works with outside companies to look for potential partners that will help advance new biomedical discoveries. Currently, the office has established 12 collaborations with pharmaceutical companies. Their goal? Get treatments to patients faster.
“We’re just now realizing the potential,” says Prat. “Collaboration with industry is good for our investigators, but more importantly, ultimately for our patients, who will benefit from new therapies that emerge from these joint efforts.”
He credits the enviable “brain trust” of MD Anderson’s top scientists, in addition to the cancer center’s highly respected clinical operation. This winning combination has attracted more than $50 million in funding commitments from industry in new collaborations this year.
Such undertakings are hardly new. Academics have long worked with pharmaceutical companies both in individual investigator-driven projects and in larger-scale studies. But some scientists and members of the public still view the pairing of private industry and academia as potentially incongruous.
In their children’s book “How to Clean a Hippopotamus: A Look at Unusual Animal Partnerships,” authors Robin Page and Steve Jenkins discuss the symbiotic relationship between the hippopotamus and the African helmeted turtle. The hippo spends so much time in the water that its hide is turned green with thick algae growth. The turtle feasts on the algae, removing the annoying slime while enjoying an enviable warm resting spot on the hippo’s back.
A similar beneficial connection exists between pharma and academia.
While understanding the intricacies of recombinant proteins and immune checkpoint inhibitors are certainly in a different realm than the growth of water plants on a hippo, the comparisons to how pharma and academia may have differing motivations, yet share an ultimate goal, cannot be denied.
Certainly, pharmaceutical companies are interested in profit while academics concentrate on new discoveries. However, both hope to develop new therapies for patients. How the collaborations are carried out to ensure that compliance, ethics, profit, legal considerations and other potential areas of concern are addressed, while meeting all regulatory and academic standards, is where Prat’s team comes into play.
One MD Anderson scientist who fully understands the value of working with the pharmaceutical industry is Guillermo Garcia-Manero, M.D., professor of Leukemia. Garcia-Manero heads a collaborative effort with the bio-pharmaceutical company Amgen. The collaboration focuses on an immunotherapy developed by Amgen that, once approved by the Food and Drug Administration, will serve as a “bridge” between T cells and cancer cells.
The immunotherapy, known as BiTE, will be used to treat myelodysplastic syndrome, a bone marrow disorder that occurs when the body doesn’t produce enough healthy blood cells. The disease mainly affects adults over the age of 60 and can cause severe anemia, potentially leading to acute myelogenous leukemia, a blood cell cancer.
“Our patients come to MD Anderson for the very latest in therapies and they’re quite sophisticated in asking about what’s happening with new clinical trials,” says Garcia-Manero. “That’s what drives all of us who come to work each day to not only treat our patients, but to seek novel medical solutions. That’s why partnering with pharmaceutical companies makes sense.”
Garcia-Manero adds that funding from drug company collaborations allows researchers to make significant progress in a relatively short period of time. And, like funding from the National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies and nonprofit organizations, the research complies with existing study guidelines and regulations.
“We, of course, have all the checks and balances in place that are required for any clinical study, to protect the safety of our patients and the viability of the research,” he says. “By sharing our expertise with drug companies that offer a large array of resources, the result is a win-win-win situation for MD Anderson researchers, the drug companies and our patients, who need therapies that work.”
A growing trend
The Amgen collaboration, which aims to take new drug development from “A to Z,” is one of several new partnerships initiated in the past year. MD Anderson is not alone in this burgeoning new approach to therapy development. Other collaborations between academic institutions and drug companies include:
- Harvard Medical School (Sanofi, élan)
- Weill Cornell Medical College (Abbott, AstraZeneca, Bayer, Eli Lilly, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck and Pfizer)
- Washington University School of Medicine (AstraZeneca, Genentech and Merck)
- Yale School of Medicine (GlaxoSmithKline)
- University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine (Novartis)
- The University of California, San Francisco, Medical School (Sanofi)
- Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (Bristol-Myers Squibb)
Even leading international institutions see the value in such partnerships, including the University of Oxford (Novo Nordisk), Heidelberg University (Accuray) and King’s College-London (Eli Lilly, Roche and Pfizer). Independent funding organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also enter into collaborations with industry (Abbott, AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly, GlaxoSmithKline and Merck).
Without such partnerships, patients today wouldn’t have access to corticosteroids or cortisone, streptomycin and other standard treatments routinely dispensed. These days, the scale of collaborations is larger and can include multimillion dollar, multiyear agreements aimed at discovering drugs for highly specific disorders.
“Patients are going to benefit sooner when we work with pharmaceutical companies to develop new therapies,” says Prat. “For example, we have a collaboration with Bristol-Myers Squibb to evaluate the best immunotherapy combinations in leukemia at a faster pace than we could achieve with a single researcher operating on a federal grant.”
Working together for cancer care
Exploring new BiTE immunotherapy agents for myelodysplastic syndrome
Conducting multiple, parallel clinical and clinically related studies of new therapies designed to improve outcomes in patients with ovarian and other gynecologic cancers
Using a new assessment tool to learn directly from patients how clinical trial drugs impact their symptoms
BOSTON STRATEGICS CORP.
Developing new oncology drugs with Boston Strategics’ True Open Innovation network, which brings together experts to share expertise in translational and clinical oncology
Evaluating multiple immunotherapies, including nivolumab, ipilimubab and other early-stage agents, as potential treatment options for acute and chronic leukemia, as well as other hematologic malignancies
Determining if targeted therapies based on molecular profiling of tumors result in longer, progression-free survival for patients with advanced cancer, compared with standard-of-care treatments
Developing immunotherapy drugs, including an OX40 monoclonal antibody, that help the body’s immune system combat cancer
JOHNSON & JOHNSON INNOVATION
Developing immunology-based cancer treatments, including drugs to target immune checkpoint receptors
Identifying optimal immunotherapy drug combinations to help patients’ immune systems fight cancer, and developing biomarkers to assess the safety of immunotherapy drugs, especially in melanoma, sarcoma and colorectal cancers
NANOSTRING TECHNOLOGIES INC.
Multiyear collaboration to accelerate the development and adoption of a new type of assay, providing a powerful tool for probing tumor biology with the potential for optimizing cancer therapeutics
Initiating clinical development of ONC201, a novel anti-cancer drug that appears to kill cancer cells without harming healthy cells
Speeding the delivery of immune-based treatments to cancer patients and becoming more efficient in identifying and using new combination therapies