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MIDDLESEX, U.K.—GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), one of the world’s leading research- based pharmaceutical and healthcare companies, has announced the winners of its second Discovery Fast Track Challenge. The program is designed to combine the expertise of academic researchers with that of drug discovery scientists at GSK to accelerate the search for new medicines.
“There are several reasons why we do this,” says Andrew Pope, senior director of discovery partnerships with academia and leader of platform technology and science at GSK. “We want to build partnerships with academia by getting to know every academic institution and building trust. We want to ‘de-risk’ the target; to make medicine, we need to find a target and have the ability to drug it. We want people to know who we are and why we’re different. We also think it’s a great way to build medicines.”
Launched by GSK in the United Kingdom in late 2010, Discovery Partnerships with Academia is a new approach to drug discovery where academic partners become core members of drug discovery teams. GSK and the academic partner share the challenges and reward of innovation as GSK funds activities in the partner laboratories and provides in-kind resources to progress a program from idea to candidate medicine.
Since the Fast Track Challenge program started in 2013 in North America, every project that has been a winner has had a screen run. The winning scientists work with GSK’s Discovery Partnerships with Academia and Molecular Discovery Research teams to test their hypotheses on targets and disease pathways against GSK’s extensive library of compounds. During this process, if a compound is identified that shows activity against these pathways or targets, the winning investigators could be offered a formal partnership with GSK to refine these molecules and work together on the development of a potential new medicine.
“It’s a long process, so we’re not yet at a point where the initial ones have turned into partnerships,” Pope notes. “We expect at least two partnerships out of eight winners last year. Out of the targets selected in 2013, we have been finding compounds that can provide new insights even if the project doesn’t move forward into a drug discovery program. Compelling targets may not be realistic, but the program helps academics to know that and move on to other projects. It’s a great way to maximize resources for translational research.”
In 2014, 14 winning proposals were selected from 428 entries in 26 countries across North America and Europe. These proposals covered a wide range of approaches and disease areas, from searching for new antibiotics or antivirals to discovering new treatments for cardiovascular and kidney diseases.
As Pope explains, the starting point of the process is a website where people submit a non-confidential proposal. From the outset, GSK makes it clear that it is trying to facilitate the “legalese” involved in intellectual property issues by setting forth an agreement that is “simple and that sets the stage for a potential partnership,” he said. External experts review and score the proposals, internal roundtables analyze them and 20 finalists are chosen. At that point, GSK asks the institution for a confidentiality agreement and assigns a mentor from GSK to the project.
“Then there are face-to-face meetings with internal experts who serve as a judging panel and provide feedback,” Pope continues. “This has been described as an enjoyable and useful process even for non-winners. Finally, there is the selection process with a very high bar.”
Because there are more than 100 academic drug discovery centers in the United States alone, Pope thought that “ideas would be more or less ready to go.” GSK learned that some had not moved forward in terms of high-throughout screening or other areas of practical development. “There’s always a compelling story and an able academic to move the process forward, and that’s why we take on the work of making it happen.”
Pope concludes: “We’re doing this to create new medicines with the sense that building partnerships on the strengths of both academics and companies who can commercialize their ideas is a powerful proposition. Direct word-of-mouth builds the ability to open doors and let academics know that we’re scientists and drug hunters who bring capabilities and resources to their projects.”