Keith Yamamoto | March 21, 2011 Issue - Vol. 89 Issue 12 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 89 Issue 12 | p. 28 | C&EN Talks With
Issue Date: March 21, 2011

Keith Yamamoto

The UCSF Vice Dean believes universities need to be more active in finding creative partnerships with big pharma
Department: Business
Keywords: industry-academic alliances, drug discovery
Credit: UCSF
Credit: UCSF

With the era of blockbuster drugs coming to a close, pharmaceutical companies are focusing on developing treatments for smaller, more targeted patient populations. Paradoxically, many firms are cutting back on basic research, the very discipline that enables their scientists to untangle complex disease pathways and discover new targets for such personalized drugs.

Instead, they are leaning more heavily on academia, or “the groups that are in the business of doing mechanistic discovery research,” says Keith R. Yamamoto, executive vice dean of the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and a proponent of closer alliances between industry and academia.

Universities have become more open to establishing collaborations with industry, Yamamoto says. But to be productive, such alliances need to be crafted differently than in the past, when the two sides generally held each other at arm’s length. The old model of loose, mostly financial ties has not succeeded, he contends.

Thanks in part to Yamamoto, UCSF has become a leader in testing out new partnering models with industry, and he sees good reasons for finding better ways to work together. Many faculty members are interested in seeing their work applied, and the university should be seeking ways for them to interface with industry, he says.

Furthermore, solving the structural problems in the drug discovery process—notably, how to translate good ideas into good drug candidates—will require collaboration across academia, government, and industry. “On the academic side, the challenge is not to leave information on the table unused,” either because researchers don’t have the resources to test their ideas or because their institutions don’t have ways to link them with other stakeholders to move ideas forward, Yamamoto says.

He points to deals UCSF has established in recent months with Pfizer and Sanofi-Aventis as examples of efforts to improve the interface between industry and academia.

A five-year pact established with Pfizer in December calls for industry and academic scientists to work shoulder to shoulder on mutually agreed-upon projects. The company will provide UCSF with up to $85 million in support over the period and is opening labs adjacent to the university campus to facilitate collaboration.

The deal percolated for years before coming to fruition, Yamamoto recalls, starting with conversations he had with Corey S. Goodman, then-head of the Bay Area start-up Renovis and later a biotech executive at Pfizer. The two scientists wanted to build an interface between academia and industry that “would enable the free flow of information, people, resources, materials, and ideas,” Yamamoto says.

Indeed, the final pact calls for projects to be developed collaboratively and to fulfill missions for both organizations. For companies, research is linked to their therapeutic priorities, while university scientists pursue intellectual goals that would have been impossible without industry’s resources. “The only way it could be done well would be to have actual investigators proximal to each other,” Yamamoto adds.

The deal with Sanofi-Aventis is another example of creative partnering, he says. Sanofi will contribute money to an existing UCSF fund called the Program for Breakthrough Biomedical Research that is designed to support risky, potentially groundbreaking experiments that otherwise might not be conducted. “They’re too preliminary, too crazy, too ‘running against the correct paradigm’ to be accepted in the federal funding and peer review model,” Yamamoto says.

Sanofi doesn’t have input on which projects get funded—a university steering committee will continue to make those decisions—but the French firm does get to look at the list of winning ideas. The idea is that exposure to the projects and early interaction with the scientists could spark deeper collaborations down the road.

Yamamoto believes pacts like the ones with Pfizer and Sanofi are one way to bridge the deep financing gap between basic research and early clinical data. “In a way, we’re saying the way we solve the ‘valley of death’ problem is to fill it with people,” he says.

Some universities are trying to bridge the gap themselves by creating in-house drug discovery and development operations. “I think that’s the wrong model,” Yamamoto says. He believes it’s a mistake for academia to re-create activities such as high-throughput screening that big pharma already does well. “Drug companies are very good at that, and I can’t think of any particular reason why academia could do it better.”

Time will tell if the UCSF approach will accelerate the development of new medicines. For drug companies, measuring the success of academic alliances is fairly straightforward: They count new drug targets or compounds that move swiftly through development.

For universities, the goals are more abstract. “The faculty and trainees here really should feel that these arrangements are allowing discoveries to be made that wouldn’t have if we had just stayed at home with our knitting,” Yamamoto says.

“The faculty will know right away whether we’re crossing that bar,” he adds. “That to me is more important than the number of dollars we bring in, companies we spin out, or patents awarded.”

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