This industry needs to forget about intellectual property and pool resources if it is to have any real hope of discovering innovative new medicines, a leading scientist claims.
The current drug discovery crisis has seen a wave of pharma companies leave Europe and set up in low-cost countries where they can buy in low-risk and late-stage clinical projects. And those companies still concentrating on innovative projects are working on the same few targets in secret and in parallel – wasting resource, people’s careers and the opportunity to improve patient health, Chas Bountra, professor of translational medicine at the University of Oxford asserts.
In response, the University has set up a hub conducting pre-competitive research into new proteins with the aim of giving them away for free. It now has 250 academic collaborations – nine with big pharma, all of which have given £8 million in funding, including GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, Novartis, Lilly, AbbVie, Takeda, Janssen and Boehringer Ingelheim, giving them access to a larger pool of money, skills, expertise, technologies and the academic network.
“This is a great way of pooling resources,” says Prof Bountra. “If we took out IP on the proteins we would only be able to work with one company – as well as incurring additional documentation, time and costs.” Moreover, he says: “In the scheme of traditional R&D investment £8 million is peanuts for these companies; a drop in the ocean.”
The UK has a good track record in drug discovery – at least in basic research – but pharma downsizing continues. GSK’s Sir Andrew Witty suggests this is due, in part, to the growing middle classes in China and India that are willing to pay for treatment, unlike the UK’s NHS system where people don’t pay directly for medicines. “If we want to remain competitive in this space we need to think about how we do things differently. We need to collaborate and innovate,” adds Bountra.
“Most ideas don’t result in a drug so forget about IP – it’s just slowing down the process, reducing collaboration and making discovery more difficult and expensive,” he argues. Society desperately needs completely novel medicines. If we don’t get a new treatment for Alzheimer’s in the next 20 years, for example, it will cripple many societies, he says, pointing to the 13 large Phase III trials in Alzheimer’s in the past decade that have all failed.
“Drug discovery is difficult, high risk and expensive. One organisation can’t do this on its own; we need to pool resources and share the risk. We need to bring together the best people irrespective of where they are or who they work for.”
This approach, he maintains, would focus resources on the right target and lessen the risk for both industry and patients – ensuring patients won’t be trialled on a compound that another company already knows will fail but hasn’t published its data on. “The best thing we can do to facilitate drug discovery is to identify new tools (proteins, assays, structures, inhibitors), and make these freely available.”
As an example, one small molecule inhibitor discovered by the Oxford group has been sent to 300 laboratories, with researchers looking at its potential in a range of conditions from cancers to inflammation and infection. “This is an example of transparency and building trust, which is good for drug discovery and for collaboration,” Bountra notes.
“There are things industry is good at and things academia is good at. We want to bring that together with patient organisations and regulators and create a whole new ecosystem for drug discovery. And in the future we plan to generate clinical candidates for some of these targets and evaluate them in patients; and we will publish on these molecules, which means they cannot be patented.
“We are saying let’s create a new ecosystem, share resources, have no IP, derisk proteins and identify that one in 10 drug that will lead to a proprietary medicine.”