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Academia’s Role in Drug Discovery

There’s a new Viewpoint piece out in ACS Medicinal Chemistry Letters on academia and drug discovery. Donna Huryn of Pittsburgh is wondering about the wisdom of trying to reproduce a drug-company environment inside a university:

However, rather than asking how a university can mimic a drug discovery company, perhaps a better question is what unique features inherent in an academic setting can be taken advantage of, embellished, and fostered to promote drug discovery and encourage success? Rather than duplicating efforts already ongoing in commercial organizations, a university has an opportunity to offer unique, yet complementary, capabilities and an environment that fosters drug discovery that could generate innovative therapies, all the while adhering to its educational mission.
A corollary to this question is the converse—what aspects of drug discovery efforts within a university might be inconsistent with its primary goal of education and research, and can solutions be found to allow success in both?

Her take is that a university should take advantage of whatever special expertise its faculty have in particular areas of biology, pharmacology, etc., which could give it an advantage compared with the staff of a given pharma company. This isn’t always easy, though, for cultural reasons:

While it seems that a university should have the tools to make significant contributions to drug discovery by taking advantage of the resident expertise, a cultural change might be required to foster an environment that values the teamwork required to make these efforts successful. Certainly funding agencies are moving in this direction with the establishment of multi-Principal Investigator designations that are designed to “maximize the potential of team science efforts”. Additionally, internal grants offered by academic institutions often insist that the proposed research involve multiple disciplines, departments, or even schools within the University. However, it seems that a concerted effort to “match-make” scientists with complementary expertise and an interest in drug discovery, finding ways to reward collaborative research efforts, and even, perhaps, establishing a project management-type infrastructure would facilitate a university-based drug discovery program.

She also makes the case the universities should use their ability to pursue higher-risk projects, given that they’re not beholden to investors. I couldn’t agree more – in fact, I think that’s one of their biggest strengths. I’d define “high-risk” (by commercial standards) as any combination of (1) unusual mechanism of action, (2) little-understood disease area, (3) atypical chemical matter, and (4) a need for completely new assay technology. If you try to do all of those at once, you’re going to land on your face, most likely. But some pharma companies don’t even like to hear about one out of the four, and two out of four is going to be a hard sell.
And I think Huryn’s broader point is well taken: we already have drug companies, so trying to make more of them inside universities seems like a waste of time and money. We need as many different approaches as we can get.

24 comments on “Academia’s Role in Drug Discovery”

  1. Chris Swain says:

    Academic groups can also pursue rare diseases that don’t have the number of patients that might not attract a pharma company.

  2. Fred says:

    Actually rare diseases are all the rage these days in biopharma. Incentives by the Orphan Drug Act and successes of companies like Genzyme, Alexion and Biomarin show that rare disease drugs are money makers.
    Real advantage of academia is novel disease mechanisms of actions and targets.

  3. ByuandBye says:

    Many thanks to Donna for speaking out. With the industry’s failing attempt to industrialize drug Discovery (not Development) the last thing we need to continue is the industrialization of our academic institutions (engineering excepted). Where will the basic research, revealing insights into disease biology, genetics and (bio)chemistry be done? Certainly not on shareholder’s money.

  4. RB Woodweird says:

    If the strength of an organization is the employees, then this will not work at all. Industrial employees at the bench (in good companies) are generally team oriented (with support from management and HR and constant training) and pay attention to detail (with comprehensive QC departments to satisfy). Academic employees, i.e., graduate students, are in the game for their own goals (getting the hell out), and are too ready to submit results so they become someone else’s problem.

  5. Ed says:

    Gosh, an academic discovers the concept of competitive advantage only 28 years after Porter first wrote about it. Next instalment, a VRIO analysis only 23 years after Barney and Hesterley.
    #4 I disagree – academics believe the strength of their department is them, not the disposable minions. Hence the short term contracts and constant churn.

  6. Anonymous says:

    This is a scary thought. Does this mean that if I happen to like doing synthesis, I have stay as a professional grad-student or post-doc? The premise is that there will be no jobs for you to move onto. To take this a step further, who would want to get into or stay in organic synthesis if there isn’t a job at the end of the tunnel.

  7. bank says:

    In an ideal academic institute (something like HHMI’s Janelia Farm Research Campus springs to mind), the advantage they have is that they will do research that does not have an immediate commercial benefit. Satisfying only one of the 4 “high risk” aspects mentioned above for a particular disease would give kudos and advancement to an academic researcher. However, it would be likely be of little immediate benefit to industry, but has potential to be of great long-term benefit.
    Academia’s strength is in intellectual adventure, and training people in the very latest science, not in commercial products. It would be a mistake to try to make academia more like industry; first since industry can’t exactly crow it’s successes in drug discovery from the roof-tops, and second, why put all your eggs into one basket?
    Some commentators have referred to the extensive QC and team-work required in industry as an example for academia. For that to occur (especially the QC) would require funding at levels much beyond what is usually available in academia. The team work aspect is all very well, however, one should recognize that cutting edge work is usually the result of the vision of one or two individuals; tying them down by creating layers of project management and “teamwork” is a recipe for their discouragement, in most cases.

  8. Mr. Gunn says:

    Novel disease targets are all good and well, but if academia keeps churning out only novel and not reproducible findings, industry will continue to move away from academia as a source for new drug ideas.
    They wouldn’t be out of line to last some of the blame for the high cost of drug discovery at the feet of academia.

  9. CMCguy says:

    I applaud the idea of increased team-work in academia, particularly if includes mufti-disciplines, as is frequently lacking in people who transition to industry. However I cringe at concept of implementation of project management infrastructure because in Industry it is rare you have an individual or even established teams with appropriate knowledge and skills to truly facilitate the drug discovery process.

  10. Anon says:

    As a grad student/postdoc I’d be annoyed that I’m doing industry level work for 35-40k a year. This would just allow industry to pay their bench researchers even less. Besides this, I don’t think it would work. Industry has much higher standards for researchers. Academia will take whatever hands they can get. Even if they know the person is just seeking a green card, has no critical thinking skills/technique, and can not communicate.

  11. SP says:

    @1, 2- Not rare diseases, but neglected diseases, rare or not- those that might have a few or a lot of patients who have no ability to pay. It’s hot to find a treatment for a disease affecting 1000 Americans per year but not one that affects 100k Africans per year.
    @4- The assumption that “academic employee” always means “grad student / postdoc” is becoming less true- a lot of academic institutions are hiring staff scientists to lead and coordinate projects, who are not trainees and who are paid (almost) equivalent to industry salaries- maybe 80-90%, certainly not $40k for a PhD.

  12. Dr. Mindbender says:

    who would want to get into or stay in organic synthesis if there isn’t a job at the end of the tunnel.
    This is the question all grad students should be asking themselves right now, but aren’t.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Are folks here familiar with Pfizer’s Center for Therapeutic Innovation (CTI) program? The idea behind this initiative is to work together with scientists in academia while providing them with funding and access to Pfizer expertise (and facilities) to move targets forward. Successful projects that come out of this certainly favor Pfizer, but the collaboration leverages the strengths of both academia and industry.
    FYI, I am not at Pfizer. I’m at an academic institution that participates in the program.

  14. oldtimer says:

    I don;t think it is apparent in the article, but Donna is a former Director of Chemical Sciences at Wyeth, and so has a great perspective for both sides of the industrial/academic debate. I agree that both sides need to bring their sharpest tools to the problem. Academics could definitely benefit from better project management practices, but their biggest role as noted above, is the ability to find new targets, regardless if they are well know and the initial validation.

  15. Chemist says:

    Pharma threw billions into research, using the best people on the planet, and has come up with little to maintain revenues. Sending work to sweatshops in China, or trying to get it done in academia, will accomplish nothing. All an attempt to make investors think they are “reinventing”.
    In grad school right now? Think you’ll get a job in drug discovery? Dream on.

  16. annonie says:

    Everyone knows how to do it better. Like NIH’s new initiative in Translational Medicine which will be a black hole of our money flushed down the drain.

  17. Doug Steinman says:

    I have been on both sides of this fence having worked for pharma companies for my entire career and working in academia currently. The biggest advantage, as I see it, of doing research in academia versus at a large pharma company is that in academia you don’t have THE SUITS telling you that the projects / compounds that you want to explore are off-limits. This frequently led to spending my time in industry working on projects / compounds that made no sense and were a complete waste of time and resources. There are certainly a lot of disadvantages to working in academia but my mental health has improved significantly since I made the change from industry. Perhaps drug research in academia will not be any more productive than it is in industry but the freedom to choose targets and projects based on solid science rather than on the whims of a corporate yes man seems like a good bet to me.

  18. Design Monkey says:

    @6 – Synthesis is dead.
    Or putting it in a bit more words – as the drug discovery with it’s historical modes of operation is gradually going to hell in handbasket, demand (and work positions) for synthesis specialists becomes much smaller.
    Oh yes, doing organic synthesis in a drug company might be an intellectually satisfying occupation, just like chess for some people. It’s just that, that there aren’t especially many places which would pay you for playing chess, and the same is happening with synthesis.

  19. Fred says:

    Should Academia get into drug discovery? This question does not require a binary answer, Yes or No. Rather, how can academia play its strengths to increase the odds of academic projects being picked up by biotech and pharma? Clearly and despite the high risk and failure rate, academia provides a vast number of diverse projects cooking independently on different diseases and different mechanisms of actions. Even if a small fraction are reproducible and represent a novel path forward for drug discovery then how is that any different than the odds coming out of a pharma R&D outfit? Translational research at academia will never substitute for pharma R&D but, given new technologies and CROs, there may be opportunities for academia to validate their research vis-a-vis drug discovery just a few steps and advance to a point more “derisked” than is typical for academia. So perhaps translational academic drug discovery may be successful if undertaking activities more akin to those performed by early stage biotechs..

  20. Squib says:

    As mention by #14, Donna only recently got into academia. I was lucky enough to take her medicinal chemistry class a few years back and, as someone now in industry, this was probably the most useful class I took while I was a student. Yet to read the paper, but she is definitely someone who has a unique insight after working in industry for most of her career.

  21. Diver dude says:

    @1, 2, 11 The real prize for the orphan drug approach is that the registration requirements are low and approval can be rapid. Once you have approval, you can immediately initiate programs of studies in any patient population that you think might benefit. Once you have that data, the route to off label use is wide open. Your major challenge is making sure that your presentation and pricing strategies for the early indications do not torpedo your (planned but deniable) later uses.

  22. everythingsgonnabealright says:

    It will be clear that academic centers are acting too much like drug companies when Universities fire all the chemists and outsource all research overseas. Go team!

  23. Anon says:

    @22 Hiring cheap international postdocs is academia’s version of outsourcing.

  24. Anonymous says:

    Industry does not need more novel drug targets. It needs more well validated drug targets. Unfortunately, there is not academic glory, or indeed grant money, in building air-tight validation of targets discovered last months. Instead, the funding and promotion systems in academia have long been founded on lavishing all our resources on the latest, greatest, most novel discoveries. It will be difficult to meld the need for strong validation with the incentives extremely weighted toward novelty.

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