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Volume 87 Issue 3 | p. 10 | News of The Week
Issue Date: January 19, 2009

Vanderbilt Forms Pact With J&J

Unique deal reflects novel drug discovery program at the university
Department: Business
Conn (back right) and his team at the Vanderbilt high-throughput screening facility.
Credit: Vanderbilt University
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Conn (back right) and his team at the Vanderbilt high-throughput screening facility.
Credit: Vanderbilt University

IN A DEAL that goes beyond the traditional industry-academia partnership, Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, and Janssen Pharmaceutica, the mental health arm of Johnson & Johnson, have partnered to develop schizophrenia treatments.

The research lab of Jeffrey Conn, director of Vanderbilt's Program in Drug Discovery, will receive $10 million from an up-front payment and other funding from Janssen. The lab stands to receive further milestone payments during the three-year pact. Janssen gains an exclusive license to existing compounds that act on a neurotransmitter target and could license and develop future molecules discovered in the collaboration.

Industry and academia have historically kept one another at arm's length, with companies typically providing professors small grants for basic research. But between big pharma's desperate search for new drugs and academia's need for steady funding, collaboration between the two has ratcheted up. Merck & Co., AstraZeneca, and Pfizer have all recently established closer ties with academic institutions (C&EN, Nov. 10, 2008, page 13).

The partnership between Vanderbilt and Janssen takes that relationship to the next level. "This is a type of deal that you normally would do with a biotech company," acknowledges Stef Heylen, chief medical officer for central nervous system research at Janssen.

"The center that Conn has established at Vanderbilt in my view is unique," Heylen explains. The scientists at Vanderbilt aim to move beyond the traditional academic playing field of basic biology and target validation to generate actual drug candidates and then ready them for testing in humans.

"We really wanted to build, in an academic environment, the infrastructure and the team science approach to drug discovery," Conn says. The Vanderbilt program has four main components: high-throughput screening, medicinal chemistry, pharmacology testing, and in vivo behavior.

More universities are pushing further into the drug development process, and big pharma is responding. "In the old days, pharma used to have the 'NIH' or 'not invented here' syndrome," rejecting anything that wasn't discovered within its walls, says Magid Abou-Gharbia, director of the Center for Drug Discovery Research at Temple University. Now, the financial burden and dry pipeline have companies changing their tune. "You're going to see more of these types of agreements between big pharma and academia," he adds.

 
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