As drug discovery chores get shuffled to the public sector, there’s an expanding place for pharmacogenomics tools there, too.
Spurred by the investment climate that has dried up the streams of VC and industry funding that once flowed to academia, SRI International will train three top universities to perform pre-clinical and clinical trials in hopes of making their nascent drug-development programs attractive to pharmaceutical companies. SRI’s plan, called Pharma-Start, might give a boost to SNP-genotyping and gene-expression technology providers whose platforms play a direct role in some early discovery and development research.
“We’re hoping to leverage this network to get significant … funding that would not normally have existed,” says Glenn Rice, vice president of SRI’s bioscience division. “We expect that PharmaStart will catalyze new collaborations, new drug development initiatives, and new funding sources” such as philanthropic groups, he says.
For its part, SRI will provide gratis 30 hours of consulting services to help the schools — Stanford, UC San Francisco, and UC San Diego — bone up on lead development and optimization, cell line characterization and banking, manufacturing, toxicology, analyte methods, pharmacokinetics, ADME research, and biomarker assay development and validation.
Rice says he will also try to forge relationships directly with tool vendors to help outfit the academic centers with instruments they’d need to perform ADME-toxicology and validation research, and perhaps gene expression and genotyping studies.
Just how much money the program will infuse into the tool pool is up in the air. Indeed, PharmaStart, still in the early stages of development, has yet to help the California schools secure government funding. Skeptics quip that the program will do little to encourage greater investment in discovery technologies, saying that government funds directed at PharmaStart labs, which would come from a finite cash pool, will be diverted from other labs.
Follow the Money
To be sure, SRI International isn’t doing this wholly as a philanthropic exercise. The money it helps to secure for PharmaStart schools will eventually help defer the $15,000 it costs to perform 30 hours of consulting, Rice says. SRI also hopes that the PharmaStart centers will farm out to it some early-stage toxicology studies — which will be paid for through state or national grants, private investment, or philanthropy.
And academic centers will have to find money to develop actual drugs. According to Rice, bringing a typical small molecule from lead compound to IND costs between $2 million and $4 million and takes between 18 months to two years of work; a protein costs between $4 million and $6 million and takes as long as three years.
Rice says it’s unclear whether it will be easier for academic centers to obtain federal funding to develop drugs than to secure VC investment or a commitment letter from big pharma. The National Cancer Institute and the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease, for example, “will pay for pre-clinical development of specific drugs,” says Rice, who adds that some of the money can go toward acquiring instruments and consumables.
“But you have to know how to propose to develop the drug,” he adds. “That’s where PharmaStart comes in. Many academicians don’t know how to write a drug-development grant.”
The goal of this exercise, eventually, is to attract VC or pharma investment. And the nature of the process itself eliminated virtually all of the risk that has caused these investors to pull back on the reins. “It’s very helpful to investors, because now they know that some of the risk has been taken out,” says Rice. “Someone has carefully and rigorously thought through this development plan: What are the hurdles, what are milestones, what are the costs?”
Whether it succeeds or fails, PharmaStart has certainly created some buzz: Rice says SRI has received calls from 12 other states to expand the PharmaStart initiative.
An expanded version of this report appeared in the August 14 edition of SNPTech Reporter.
Kirell Lakhman is editor of SNPTech Reporter, a weekly newsletter from GenomeWeb at www. snptech.com. He can be reached at [email protected]