23 Oct University research and life science collaborations drive new approaches to disease
It is rare to see universities collaborate between themselves on basic research! Yes, you may see many universities linked together to collaborate on clinical trials in specific disease areas and, in fact, there are groupings of such universities for key diseases areas such as brain cancer. You may also see university collaborations with government institutions such as the federal labs (e.g. Argonne) or the National Institutes of Health.
But in Chicago, there has existed now for a number of years a unique coming together of three universities to further research in the area of biomedicine, known as the Chicago Biomedical Consortium. The mission of this organization linking three institutions, according to the CBC website, is to:
• Stimulate research and education that bridge institutional boundaries.
• Enable collaborative and interdisciplinary research that is beyond the range of a single institution.
• Recruit and retain a strong cadre of biomedical leaders and researchers in Chicago.
• Promote the development of the biomedical industry in Chicago.
• Execute a plan capable of improving the health of citizens of Chicago and beyond.
Imagine one very large state institution sandwiched by two leading private institutions, all with different ways of doing things and their own internal political structures, combining to do research together!
Although the CBC is somewhat of a virtual organization that taps into the infrastructure of each university, it does have its own executive director, Kathryn Stallcup, Ph.D., and a small staff. It even has its own funding independent of the universities!
Not chump change
Early in 2006, the Searle Funds (coming from the Searle family, the founding family of the former pharmaceutical company G.D. Searle) at the Chicago Community Trust announced an initial grant of $5 million as part of a five-year, $25 million grant to fund the CBC. And if things go well, it is the intention of the Searle Funds to commit another $25 million for an additional five years, bringing the CBC’s funding to $50 million over 10 years. Not chump change!
Well, this all sounds great, but will the CBC really be doing over the next couple of years? According to the website, the CBC “… focuses on the emerging field of systems biology, which is the study of protein networks, cells, tissues, entire organisms, and other biological systems as integrated wholes. The consortium initially is concentrating on the technologies of proteomics (the study of proteins and their functions) and informatics (the application of computers and other technology to analyze large amounts of data). The key to understanding human biological functions, both normal and abnormal, lies in the study of the complex interactions that occur among proteins in response to each other and to their environment.”
I was further curious to know about the disease targets being pursued by the CBC. Again according to their website, the CBC is targeting better diagnosis, treatment and prevention of complex diseases, including cancer, heart disease, immune system disorders such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
These three universities have excellent resources that are being leveraged to further this collaboration, including:
• CBC/UIC RRC Proteomics and Informatics Services Facility, which provides access to a number of mass spectrometers, optimized for use in proteomics studies.
• Argonne National Labs’ Proteomics facilities.
• University of Chicago’s Proteomics Core labs, which include a mass spectrometry facility, dedicated to the characterization of proteins and peptides. This facility provides advice and services pertaining to peptide synthesis, protein sequencing, mass spectrometry, amino acid analysis, and more.
• Northwestern’s Mass Spectrometry facility.
• CBC’s Viral Vector Center.
The CBC regularly puts on conferences to draw faculty and researchers from all three institutions together on the topics of proteomics and informatics, but they also hold a formal annual symposium that rotates geographically around the three universities. Last week, the CBC held its 5th annual symposium at a new location independent of each of the institutions: the Illinois Science + Technology Park. The park, as you may remember, was the former home and headquarters of G.D. Searle, the pharmaceutical company.
This year’s symposium had two other breaks from the past in addition to the location change:
• A focus on translational research, or how to bridge university-based discoveries to direct commercial applications.
• Incorporation of the life science industry directly into the symposium to review how industry sees the current and future status of industry and university collaborations as an aid to the development of new technologies.
The morning session focused on new developments in medicine that will have unique impacts on disease diagnosis and treatment. The chairman of Northwestern’s Neurology Department, Dr. Jack Kessler, talked about new treatment modalities with both stem cells and nanotechnologies. The University of Chicago’s Chairman on the Committee for Clinical Pharmacology and Pharmacogenomics, Dr. Mark Retain, discussed pharmacogenetics and personalized medicine. Dr. Anna Barker, the deputy director of the National Cancer Institute, addressed new diagnostic and treatment modalities for cancer, with a strong focus on the use of nanotechnologies.
The afternoon session included a good mixture of senior R&D executives from the Midwest: Baxter International, Abbott Labs, Takeda Pharmaceuticals, and one of the leading biotech companies in the region, Advanced Life Sciences. This group reviewed some of the attractions and issues related to dealing with universities, the attractions being access to novel technology and targets, sites for clinical trials, intellectual property, etc. Some of the negatives included the long Internal Review Board (IRB) process with many institutions, long time periods before clinical trials can start, licensing processes at many universities (including lawyers representing universities) not being attuned to the need for urgency and commercial reality for setting terms for deals, etc. For the universities, on the other hand, it is not always clear who is the right point person at large life science companies.
The conclusion of this symposium was that there is a real need for continued dialogue between both universities and life science companies, as the latter desperately needs new products and technology and tools to help increase its R&D productivity and time to market, and universities often have outstanding research and clinical infrastructures in place to help increase such productivity. The main disconnect between the two institutions is the concept of time, given industry’s commercial sense of urgency.
I was gratified to see this kind of dialogue happening between great research institutions and equally great life science companies with the goal of improving the overall life science environment in the Midwest. You certainly see this interaction in San Francisco, San Diego, and Boston/Cambridge.
Disclosure: the author works for Forest City Enterprises which owns and operates the Illinois Science + Technology Park, and participated with the CBC in organizing the above symposium.
More Japanese M&A
I have recently commented on the consolidation of the Japanese pharma market, which began a series of large M&A transactions three to five years ago, including both Japanese-to-Japanese companies (e.g. Astellas, Daiichi-Sankyo, etc.) and Japanese-to-foreign company (e.g. Roche acquiring Chugai, etcetera). I have also commented on the rise of non-traditional Japanese life science companies to the forefront, including Japanese breweries, tobacco, food, and cosmetic companies.
The Wall Street Journal recently featured yet another Japanese M&A transaction: the acquisition by Kirin Breweries (Japan’s largest brewery by market cap) of a majority position (50.1 percent) in the Japanese cancer products company Kyowa Hakko Kogyo for $5.1 billion.
As the WSJ article points out, it is very interesting that at a time when there is U.S. and worldwide consolidation in the beer business, that Japan’s largest brewery decides to increase its business interest in pharmaceuticals. But as WSJ also points out, Kirin has already been in the pharma/biotech business for some time with its fermentation expertise, and pharma already represents 10 percent of operating profit for this company.
Kirin is not the only Japanese brewery to have stakes in pharma and biotech. Asahi Breweries, the next largest beer maker, is also a player in this market. Many of the new biotech drugs (proteins) are made using technologies similar to the fermentation technology employed by the breweries, making this a very interesting strategy. Moreover, pharma/biotech is a more profitable business than beer!
This trend will be interesting to follow!
See you soon!
Previous articles by Michael Rosen
• Michael Rosen: The ease of biotech beyond the Midwest and the U.S.
• Michael Rosen: Japanese biotech: A Midwestern perspective
• Michael Rosen: The cost of doing biotech business: Midwest cheaper than the coast, but not by much?
• Michael Rosen: Midwest nanotechnology whittles away at top states
• Michael Rosen: Where have all the “Searlies” gone? How transplanted employees shape a tech industry
This article previously appeared in MidwestBusiness.com, and was reprinted with its permission.
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