Three Universities Join Researcher to Develop Drugs
- By ANDREW POLLACK
Saying that venture capitalists and drug companies are becoming
reluctant to invest in academic medical discoveries, three leading
California universities are planning to take on more of the task of
The universities Stanford and the University of California branches
in San Francisco and San Diego are joining with SRI International,
a nonprofit research institute, to form PharmaStart, a consortium
aimed at moving discoveries made at the schools into clinical trials.
"It's not enough any longer to cure cancer in the mouse," said Dr.
Edward W. Holmes, vice chancellor for health sciences at the
University of California at San Diego, and dean of its medical
school. "We really do need to move the science into the clinic."
Typically that has taken place when pharmaceutical companies license
experimental drugs from universities, or when professors receive
backing from venture capitalists to start companies. Indeed, the
three universities spawned much of the biotechnology industries in
the San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego, two of the top
biotechnology centers in the nation.
But university officials say that system is breaking down as
pharmaceutical companies and venture capitalists have become more
averse to gambling on raw technology and more interested in drugs
that have demonstrated at least some promise in a small clinical
trial. That has left more promising ideas unable to pass through what
some experts have called the "valley of death" between basic
discovery and commercial development.
"We in the university are being deprived of a common way to develop
technologies because we cannot form companies like we used to," said
Joel B. Kirschbaum, director of the office of technology management
at the University of California at San Francisco.
The universities say they do not plan to become drug companies. But
by doing more of the basic work on drugs themselves like testing
them for toxicity in animals they say they can then entice
pharmaceutical companies. Moreover, they say, they will get a better
deal because some of the risk has been taken out.
Whether the consortium will work is open to question. Under the deal,
SRI International, which does contract research, will offer the
universities up to 30 hours of free consulting for each project to
develop a plan for how to test for toxicity, make the drug for
clinical trials and other necessary steps. But the universities would
still have to come up with the money for the tests, manufacturing or
SRI hopes that it will be hired to do the actual toxicity testing or
manufacturing, though the universities are under no obligation. In
this sense, PharmaStart is really a marketing tactic by SRI, which
initiated the consortium. The universities are not required to put
any money into the consortium, only to have representatives on its
Officials at the universities and SRI said that among the drugs that
might benefit are one discovered by a Stanford professor for a rare
inherited skin disorder, a novel AIDS drug developed at U.C.S.F. and
a leukemia treatment at the San Diego campus derived from Chinese
herbal medicine. PharmaStart might eventually be open to other
The effort appears to be part of a trend on the part of universities
to take drug development more into their own hands, particularly for
rare diseases that might not present large markets for pharmaceutical
Harvard has set up the Laboratory for Drug Discovery in
Neurodegeneration, which is screening large numbers of chemicals to
try to find drugs for diseases like Huntington's and amyotrophic
lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Typically,
such mass screening is done by companies, not academic scientists.
"We've actually set up a lot like a biotech," said the director of
the laboratory, Dr. Ross L. Stein, who worked for pharmaceutical and
biotechnology companies before joining Harvard. He said the lab's
formation was "based on frustration that a lot of faculty had in not
being able to get pharma interested in diseases like Huntington's and
A.L.S." He said drugs for such diseases might not have big sales and
it is still unclear exactly how to attack such diseases. But if drugs
are developed, he said, they would be licensed to companies.
The City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, Calif., has set
up a factory to make experimental drugs for use in clinical trials in
compliance with government regulations.
Beyond academic centers, patient advocacy groups are also taking a
much more active role in sponsoring or doing research aimed at
finding cures for specific diseases. And nonprofit drug
organizations, backed by contributions from philanthropists, have
arisen to try to develop drugs for diseases in developing countries,
like malaria and tuberculosis, which tend to be neglected by
Venture capitalists became more conservative as biotechnology stocks
slumped in 2001 and 2002. It became difficult for biotechnology
companies to go public. That meant venture capitalists could not
easily recover their investments in start-ups and had to put
additional money into existing companies in their portfolios, leaving
less for new ones.
Still, the situation could now be changing. Biotechnology stocks have
been rising much of this year, and many analysts say they think
companies will start going public in the fall. Some recent surveys
have shown that venture investing over all is on the rise and is
particularly strong in biotechnology.