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GSK's Roses Brings a New Model of Drug Discovery to Duke

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Allen Roses has a sense of urgency that might come as a surprise for someone who has spent his career in academia and pharma. "I had a major heart attack in 1990," he says. "It changed the way I live my life. I wake up in the morning, I blink twice, if I'm still here I go at 120 percent."

Indeed, that's what Roses is doing at Duke University, the institution where he spent 27 years before heading off to head up genetics research and pharmacogenetics at GlaxoSmithKline in 1997. Roses leads the Drug Discovery Institute, which he says is a new model of how drug discovery could be done in a non-pharma setting.
When Roses went to GSK, he initially took a three-year leave of absence to work on a drug for Alzheimer's. "I was very naïve about how long it took to make a drug," he laughs. But what he saw in pharma discouraged him. Frequent changes in leadership and areas of focus — not just at GSK, but throughout the industry — meant that successful drug candidates would be shelved even after patents had been filed on them. "A lot of stuff is left on the table," Roses says.

As he surveyed the discovery and development landscape, it occurred to him that systemic problems were standing in the way of real progress. Pharmaceutical companies tend to buy late-stage molecules from biotechs rather than build them in-house, and the academics who first propose molecules as potential drug candidates don't pursue them beyond basic research stages. "If big pharma's not making it, the academics aren't making them, the VCs that support many of the biotechs want a return in three to five years, they're not going to be making it — so who's making the molecules?" Roses asks.

It won't be Roses, either, but he hopes his so-called virtual pharma will get molecules to the point where they're interesting and relatively low-risk for pharmas to take on. At his new institute, Roses has formed an executive committee of eight or 10 people with expertise in various stages of drug discovery. "It really is a group think," he says.

The idea is to form partnerships with pharmas to take over promising molecules that have been shelved, and Roses' team will farm out the stages of discovery and preclinical work to get that molecule further along the path to being an approved drug. "We're going to be trying to become a source of proof-of-concept molecules," Roses says. While the concept is definitely an experiment, he says, "one success and I think this thing becomes a model."

While that covers late-stage molecules — those that have already been put through the paces of early discovery — Roses says the institute will also work with earlier-stage candidates. Those will take more time and prove more costly, so Roses has secured funding from several donors — "wealthy people and small countries with a lot of money," he says.

Roses and the executive team are currently evaluating a few such deals, which are in various stages of due diligence, he says. He hopes that the first success would come in less than three years.

Another aspect of Roses' new plan is a separate entity that he calls Cabernet Pharmaceuticals, which is his own consultation company that helps pharmas handle project management for compounds in the drug development stage. Companies might come to him, for example, if they "have a molecule that's in development [and they need to] get a companion diagnostic on time for registration with the FDA." Roses says he started up this venture to fulfill his interest in late-stage pharmacogenetics and adverse events. "It took off like wildfire," he says, noting that the appointments he has lined up should keep him busy for all the time he's allotted to the consultancy for its first year of business.

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