Unclogging the drug pipeline
David Bornstein reports on a promising approach to increase the number of drugs produced by medical research:
Researchers in the foundation’s four partner labs say that the relationship hasn’t constrained their science; it’s improved it. “We are certainly looking for targets to enhance the reparative potential of the central nervous system,” explained Brian Popko, the Associate Chair for Research in the Department of Neurology at the University of Chicago. “But we weren’t encouraged to develop therapeutic approaches before we understood the system we were trying to repair.”
Johnson has also assembled some of the country’s most accomplished neurologists and immunologists, as well as industry experts to sit on M.R.F.’s three advisory boards, which focus, respectively, on basic science, drug discovery and clinical issues.
To date, researchers have identified a number of targets, of which five to seven are strong candidates that M.R.F. is actively pursuing. They are in close contact with industry researchers and will be farming out the “translational” research needed to attract pharmaceutical interest. They control 50 percent of the licensing of patents for research they fund and, as a nonprofit, can be very flexible in negotiating fees. Within five years, Johnson envisions partnerships with four or five companies, each of which will be moving a couple of targets forward. “We hope to have our first clinical trial for myelin repair by 2014,” he says. “To get to a clinical trial within ten years in an area of research that until recently no one thought was therapeutically relevant would be hugely significant.”
If the M.R.F., and like-minded foundations, succeed, their models will likely influence the bigger actors in medical research. Francis S. Collins, the head of the N.I.H., is pushing to create a new drug development center to be named the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.
In an admission that I know some people will appreciate, Stanford professor Ben Barres admits that academia incentivizes basic rather than “useful” research:
“Pure science is what you’re rewarded for,” notes Dr. Barres. “That’s what you get promoted for. That’s what they give the Nobel Prizes for. And yet developing a drug is a hundred times harder than getting a Nobel Prize. We really have to have the very best scientists engaged in this. For a long time this hasn’t been the case. Until five or ten years ago, working on disease was kind of shunned.”