Here’s an editorial from Morris Birnbaum of Pfizer on collaboration between academia and the drug industry. He’s worked on both sides of the fence, so that makes for some useful comparisons. I think the summary sentence would be this one: “It seems obvious that many of the obstacles to effective academic-pharmaceutical partnerships result from a fundamental lack of understanding by each party of the other’s motivations and career pressures.” Admittedly, that sentence could have been written any time in the last fifty years, and it’s perhaps a bit unnerving that it’s still valid today, but these things take time.
One classic obstacle is the attitude towards publication. In academia, if it didn’t get published in a journal, it didn’t happen, whereas in industry journal publication is more of an “Oh, I guess so” affair. A successful project for a drug company scientist isn’t one that got into a good journal, it’s one that made it to the clinic (and as far into the clinic as possible, preferably all the way out the other side. That brings up another difference in this area – if your primary goal is publication, in as high-profile a journal as possible, then a lot of that is up to you once the good research results are generated. But getting a compound into the clinic, which certainly a good outcome, is only the beginning of the exposure to out-of-anyone’s-control factors, as our 90% failure rates illustrate most painfully.I think that, in general, academic scientists feel much more attached to their projects because more of the success is on them directly, compared to somewhat more fatalistic industry scientists who figure that the cells/rats/patients are gonna do what they’re gonna do, and we just have to get up there and find out what that is.
Birnbaum also makes a good point about what industry is trying to get from academic research, versus what academic research provides. Drug companies want new targets, new modes of treatment. Is there some specific intervention that no one else realizes yet that would make a big difference in a disease? Academic groups, naturally enough, are not focused in quite that direction. They’re likely as not looking for new biology, new pathways, new mechanisms (as they should). These may or may not have any relevance to a disease target, or not yet, and the first big “translational gap” is finding the intersection between “continuous avalanche of new biology results from the literature” and “stuff that could lead to a good drug project”. Once in a while there’s a discovery that just drops things into peoples’ laps, but most of the time it’s a more like “OK, according to this paper, the XYZ kinase turns out to get more active when A happens. . .and you know, that A business is a bit like B, which happens in this disease over here, and now that I dig into it, the QRS kinase is kind of like XYZ, when you think about it, so I wonder if you inhibited QRS if the disease would. . .” and so on. Dots have to be connected.
So, the article says, industrial and academic groups should spend more time than they probably do making sure that they’re thinking about the same goals, and thinking about them in roughly the same way. You can’t slap a bunch of once-a-month milestones on things, but you can’t just say “Here’s some money, we’ll talk to you in a couple of years”, either. The academic side of the partnership needs to have room to explore things, while also realizing that in the end, the stuff getting explored should have a shot at being actionable.
. . .companies are most comfortable working with contract research organizations (CROs), for which a list of experiments and deliverables is agreed upon and the plan rarely revisited and then only with serious discussion. On the other hand, academics often proceed under the principle that once grant funding is received, there is considerable flexibility in what studies are performed, as long as the principal investigator can demonstrate the merit of the experiments at the time of renewal or final report. It is readily apparent that these two approaches are incompatible and will breed discord.
Most definitely. And you want to fund the right people, and “right” does not necessarily mean “big and famous”. Getting some big name to work with you on something that’s a side project for them will probably not produce as many results as someone less well known for whom the project is a priority. One thing that Birnbaum doesn’t mention is that companies may have different priorities than they should have in these cases. Sometimes you see collaborations that seem to be initiated just for the prestige value of working with Dr. Famous Professor or with good ol’ Aweinspiring U., and these end up structured (unstructured) in a way that they’re almost certain not to actually produce anything (except perhaps keeping everyone on friendly terms?)
Friendly terms are not to be underestimated, however, because there can be a fair amount of suspicion (from both sides) in some of these collaborations. The article mentions several, but this one stood out:
A particularly perplexing phenomenon is the disproportionate aversion of many academics to revealing results to scientists in the private sector compared to academic colleagues and competitors, from whom the principal investigator has considerably more to fear. The private sector is seldom motivated primarily by publication; hence, the academic scientist should have little concern for being ‘‘scooped.’’
My guess is that this reluctance is fueled by a feeling that revealing data might lead to the company running off and quickly making a billion dollars while the professor is left in the dust. Sadly, that doesn’t happen much (the billion dollar part, not the leaving in the dust part). Many academics don’t actually have a good handle on what’s patentable and what’s worth patenting, and (some, not all) university technology transfer offices don’t, either. But believe me, if there’s a billion bucks to be made, it’s going to come on pretty slowly, and everyone will have time to apportion credit. Not everyone ends up like Northwestern, but it does happen. And yeah, we’d like for it to happen more often, too!