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Quebec Drug-Discovery Consortium to Name First Five Winners in C$12M Funding Initiative

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This article was originally published on May 11.

MONTREAL — The Quebec Consortium for Drug Discovery, a public-private partnership launched last year to help commercialize early-stage drug-discovery research of interest to Canadian pharmaceutical companies, has selected its first five projects for funding, the consortium's director said last week.

The winning researchers, whose identities will be disclosed in the coming weeks, have been selected from a group of 12 "priority" research teams that were invited to submit full applications last December. They were whittled down from 78 initial applications filed in November.

The consortium, abbreviated CQDM, has an annual budget of C$12 million ($10.3 million), enough to fund three to five projects each year, Max Fehlmann, president and CEO of CQDM, said during a panel session at the Licensing Executives Society spring meeting, held here last week.

The first group of awardees will each receive C$500,000 to C$1 million per year for up to three years, subject to annual milestone achievements and other follow-up reports, Fehlmann said.

CQDM launched last year at the Biotechnology Industry Organization annual meeting in San Diego. Founding government partners include the Quebec Minister of Economic Development, Innovation, and Export Trade, or MDEIE; and Fonds de la Recherche en Santé du Quebec, or FRSQ, Québec's public-sector health-research funding agency. Together these entities contributed $4 million to set up the consortium.

In addition, the Canadian units of pharmaceutical companies Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and Merck (called Merck Frosst) each committed C$1 million per year for the first four years of the project.

"Our model has only one box, and all the money goes into this box," Fehlmann said. "The benefits of the projects will be coming back to everybody. The model is very simple and the rules of the game are simple."

In return for their sponsorship, the pharma partners are hoping to reap the benefits of funded research projects in the form of new tools to decrease the time and cost of developing new molecules and reduce the attrition rate of their drug-discovery programs, Fehlmann said.

"Worldwide, pharmas must re-think the paradigm of how to do research," Fehlmann said. "For years they have been secretive and hiding things from one another. But now they are realizing they need to partner" to replenish their R&D pipelines.

Pharmas are becoming increasingly aware that universities and research institutions are excellent sources of new, innovative drug-discovery technology, Fehlmann said. "But solutions cannot come from the university alone," he said. "They do not have the knowledge, expertise, or resources" to develop useful commercial products in this area, he added.

Each funded team must comprise researchers from a university or non-profit research institute, biotech firm, or both, from the province of Québec. The consortium's board of directors, which is made up of representatives from the provincial government and the pharma partners, pre-selected the first dozen finalists based on the first research priority identified by the consortium's members: Improving the efficacy of drug-discovery research.

Specific examples of such tools include models for predicting efficacy, such as in vitro, in silico, animal, and human translational models; tools for pharmacokinetic assessment; validation of new therapeutic targets; and validation of predictive or monitoring tools such as biomarkers or imaging technologies.

The consortium "cannot work on developing molecules," Fehlmann said, since the pharma backers are generally unwilling to share results from research in this area. Instead, he said the consortium will "focus on technologies for drug discovery [and] finance new tools to enable the discovery process" across several therapeutic fields.

Any intellectual property that is generated through funded research projects will belong to the inventors and their respective institutions, although the consortium's industrial sponsors will be given the first right of refusal for a non-exclusive end-user license for internal research purposes only. The IP owners will also maintain the right to use the technology themselves or to out-license it to third parties.

In addition, CQDM will review the general frame of a potential licensing agreement with consortium participants and funded researchers prior to the start of each project. According to Fehlmann, it is unlikely that the license agreements will be based on royalties "given the pre-competitive nature of the research."

Fehlmann also said that CQDM will act as an agent for its pharma sponsors and negotiate on their behalf, but will not take shares in the IP ownership or licensing process.

As part of the final selection process, consortium officials also conducted "risk analysis" of each project to "assess potential risks that may jeopardize the successful achievement of the project or the issuance of an end-user license option for CQDM’s pharma sponsors," Fehlmann said.

Factors that played into this assessment included ensuring that the research team has the freedom to use any pre-existing IP necessary for carrying out their project; reviewing the deliverables and IP to be generated by the project; assessing the financial stability of the research infrastructure; reviewing project management; and identifying any ethical issues regarding the experimental use of animals, human samples, or clinical studies.

"We wanted to know what the researcher would define as the deliverable, and we wanted to see a clear plan," Fehlmann said. "We want to force people to ask, 'What is the IP going to be?'"

Although Fehlmann declined to disclose the identities of the first five funded research projects, he said that CQDM would identify them "within the next few weeks." In addition, he said that "some winning projects are being led by universities and some by biotech companies," despite CQDM's difficulty in attracting the latter for participation in the program.

To wit: CQDM received 78 total applications from seven universities, including 23 from the University of Montreal, 20 from McGill University, 14 from Laval University, six from Sherbrooke University, two from the University of Quebec in Montreal, one from the University of Quebec in Chicoutimi, and one from the Biotechnology Research Institute in Montreal. However, the consortium received funding applications from just 11 private organizations.

"We still have some difficulty in attracting biotech companies," Fehlmann said. "Most of these companies are under such pressure from their investors. We explained that this has to be something that is not going to be an asset of the company. And they must not see a problem with giving a license to someone like Pfizer or Merck. But they will have the benefit of using the technology for themselves."

According to Fehlmann, biotech companies participating in the program could also benefit by networking with pharmaceutical companies, universities, and the Canadian government; improving their ability to finance higher-risk R&D; receiving non-dilutive funding; and gaining access to international experts, technical centers, and research facilities and platforms.

The biotechs that have expressed interest in participating in the project "understood that they would have never been able to do this work without the contribution of the project," Fehlmann said. "They would never have had the money available to finance such a project."

Meantime, universities will benefit because the program will provide a conduit through which they can commercialize drug-discovery research tools that are often difficult to find development partners for. In addition, "we're hoping this will help people from academia and biotech companies to better understand needs of industry," Fehlmann said.

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