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Academia’s New Role in Pharmaceutical Innovation

Innovative research is being performed in universities worldwide. There is a quest for knowledge, glory, and most importantly, helping the sick. On the whole, academia is less commercially driven than the pharmaceutical industry. However, even the most socially-conscious researcher keeps an eye on the economic viability of their research. Curing a disease ideally comes with compensation for the research team and the university, and industry is poised to make that a reality. Pharma has shown willingness to explore other avenues of pharmaceutical innovation and this academia-pharma relationship is no exception.

Pharma and universities both benefit by working together

Why the need for a deeper relationship

“Academic scientists tend to be driven by academic research questions that need to be carefully aligned with the commercial interests of their colleagues in industry.”1

Licensing out technology from universities certainly happens on a fairly common basis, but it is usually by chance and not by design. For pharmaceutical innovation to benefit from this relationship, there needs to be a match in research and industry needs, and one way to drive this, is for pharma to step in with a bigger contribution and sense of direction early on. This would allow academic research to translate to real world applications, have more reliable funding and thus greater success, all whilst helping pharma with it’s struggling pipelines.

Working together for pharmaceutical innovation

Pharma is essentially outsourcing many aspects of research in R&D and focusing on other areas internally. In respect to pharmaceutical innovation through academia, “pharma companies invest directly into research collaborations to preferentially develop, assess and acquire their early stage outputs.”1Recent developments in some universities have indicated an “apparent desire to develop drugs or clinical candidates”,2 as seen by the addition of many drug discovery related core facilities, but this should be avoided without pharma support as even seasoned industry professionals struggle during drug development.

Fortunately, universities are embracing their new role as they have “become more aware of the potential commercial reward” and begun to promote the creation of a “scaled-down pharma model comprising most of the functions required for small molecule drug discovery.”1 Although even with issues of publications, possible patent information, and the move away from “pure” research, the benefits seem to outweigh the negatives. Greater collaboration with experts, the ability to focus on under-served diseases, and financial stability provides for a smoother R&D environment.

Pharmaceutical innovation needs collaboration to come about - pharma certainly cannot do it alone. The help of academics brings in a new source of ideas and candidates. With the help of government programs, such as non-profit drug development corporations,3 there a possibility of greater pharmaceutical success, more drugs in the clinics and hopefully lower drug costs to the patients.

  1. Tralau-Stewart C, Wyatt C, Kleyn D, Ayad A. Drug discovery: new models for industry -academic partnerships. Drug Discovery Today. 2009
  2. Weigelt J. The case for open-access chemical biology. A strategy for pre-competitive medicinal chemistry to promote drug discovery. EMBO.
  3. Juliano RL. Pharmaceutical innovation and public policy: the case for a new strategy for drug discovery and development. Science and Public Policy. 2013