Adding a new page to the academia-industry collaboration playbook, Merck & Co. is investing up to $90 million over seven years to help create the California Institute for Biomedical Research (Calibr), a vehicle for university scientists to turn ideas into drug candidates. Scripps Research Institute chemistry professor and biotech entrepreneur Peter G. Schultz will head the San Diego-based not-for-profit.
Linking academic labs to big pharma to translate basic biological discoveries into medicines has proven challenging, Schultz says. The concept behind Calibr is “to build another academic-like operation that could interface very well with other academics in a collaborative model,” while also linking to industry, he says.
In essence, Calibr will be an intermediary between big pharma and academic scientists: The institute will partner with university researchers anywhere in the world to bring their drug discovery programs to the point of proof of concept in animal models. At that stage, Merck will have an option to license a project; if Merck passes on it, Calibr can shop a drug candidate around to other companies or even explore spinning off the research as a stand-alone company.
The model captures the strengths of each party at each stage in the drug discovery process and allows only the best programs to be developed, Peter S. Kim, president of Merck Research Laboratories, tells C&EN.
Calibr will have dedicated lab space in San Diego that will eventually house roughly 150 scientists who will help further develop the basic research contributed by university researchers around the world. About half the staff will have drug industry experience, Schultz expects, and the other half will be “bright young postdocs interested in pursuing translational activities.”
A scientific advisory board headed by Harvard University biological chemistry and pharmacology professor Christopher T. Walsh will review proposals submitted by university researchers and select which ones Calibr will pursue. The institute could have up to 20 ongoing collaborations in the first two years, Schultz says.
Merck has no particular preference regarding the disease areas Calibr takes on, Kim says. Rather, he says, “What we want is for the science to compete with the science, and [we will] pick out the very best ideas.”
Drug companies in recent years have been exploring new and more fruitful ways of collaborating with academic scientists than just providing research grants. AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson all have established broad pacts with institutions that entail working side by side with academic scientists to accelerate target validation and drug discovery.
For Merck, the Calibr collaboration is an important next step in evolving how it works with academia. “We’re not interested in doing collaborations with entire institutions or departments, but rather we ask, ‘Who is the best person in the world—who should we be working with?’ ” Kim says. “Calibr enhances that strategy and moves it to the next level. Essentially, any scientist anywhere in the world can tap into Calibr.”