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Innovation Goes Front and Center in Drug Discovery

Innovation is suddenly the word on everybody’s lips. Pfizer launched “Centers for Therapeutic Innovation”, Johnson and Johnson followed with their “Innovation Centres” and now Merck followed with their “Innovation hubs”. In fact, it happened so fast that many of us in the dusty halls of academia are still trying to get a grip on what’s going on. We got a view point from Dr. Andrew Johnson of the University of California and it seems like these things are innovative in more ways than one. Here’s a blog explaining what all this “innovation” is about.

Innovation is the way forward for drug discovery and academic science. Image from

The first thing you should know is that Innovation Centers are born out of necessity. Patents are expiring on these drug company’s main earners while research and development costs have spiraled out of control. Yet these companies still need to find new targets to develop into more life-saving, money-earning therapeutics. Innovation Centers represent a radical shift in strategy that drug companies hope will allow them to deliver more while risking less.

The model goes something like this. If the Innovation Center thinks the idea is a good one which has genuine potential to become a drug then, in principle, they are ‘in’. As a friend in London described it, “it’s almost “Britain’s Got Talent” for scientists. The details vary from company to company and project to project, but the stated intention is to take early stage projects as well as compounds closer to the clinic and thus create an externalised pipeline. From that point the model is exciting in its flexibility with the company aiming to provide expertise uniquely targeted to the demands of the project. In doing this, web-based platforms, such as Scientist, play a critical role. Scientist enables rapid, cost-effective access to an exhaustive array of dedicated research services, technical experts and CROs, a vital requirement in a business where in house R&D is replaced with on-demand activity. For example, an innovation partnership might access lab space in an incubator, such as in “Biotech and Beyond” founded by Scientist CEO Kevin Lustig, or rapidly outsource aspects of drug development (such as DMPK, Pharmacology, medicinal chemistry etc) that would be beyond the scope of the average academic. The critical part of the innovation model is that the ties in this partnership are weak and flexible. The drug company can get in quick on a new target and get out just as fast if the target proves to be a dud.

What this means for the researcher on the bench and ultimately what it will mean for drug discovery are still open-ended ideas. In theory Innovation Centers offer a much needed new source of funding and know-how for applied science as well as an entrepreneurial career route distinct from academia. On the other hand the locations of these centers (San Francisco, Boston, New York and London) is currently not very innovative and so surely casting a wider net and preventing competition for the same targets will require the geographical expansion of the centers, to include China and India for example. In the end proof of lasting success of these Innovation Centers will be measured in the number and value of new products brought to the healthcare market.

  1. “Search and Development”, Editorial, Nature Biotechnology, vol. 32, p109