Academia and Big Pharma United

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Science Translational Medicine  01 Jan 2014:
Vol. 6, Issue 217, pp. 217ed1
DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3007459

Hans-Gustaf Ljunggren


Academia is undergoing major changes. From a former institutional focus on the two main goals of teaching and research, demand has increased to accomplish a third task, public outreach. Most recently, academia has been expected to undertake a fourth task, namely, contributing to national economic growth. However, academia has some limitations regarding the latter. The creative processes characterized by academic research require open inquiry; therefore, to seek “goal orientation” toward the creation of products that serve the purpose of economic growth is difficult. In part, this disconnect stems from the research process itself, which has the primary mission of gaining knowledge per se rather than generating products and patents.

Meanwhile, many big pharmaceutical companies have witnessed a dramatic decrease in the output of new drugs, leading them to refocus their research efforts, instigate structural changes and make financial adjustments. This reorientation includes mergers among similar-sized companies as well as the acquisition of smaller biotechs and medium-sized pharma companies. Despite these changes, the biggest problem underlying the lack of new products seems to be, at least in part, inefficient discovery processes (1). Like universities, the pharmaceutical industry now realizes its limitations. The creative processes traditional for academia have been difficult, if not impossible, to harness and adapt in organizations where goal orientation is the number one priority. Consequently, drugs discovered in pharmaceutical laboratories are fewer than expected. Indeed, a number of new drugs now entering the market, including small molecules and biologics, have their origins in university settings. Realization of this trend has led many pharmaceutical companies to actively engage in new forms of collaboration with academia.

Industrial-academic collaborations are not new, and they have taken several different forms, including project grants provided by pharma to university research teams or to academic institutions with arrangements to secure rights for intellectual property. However, a recent five-year, US$100 million agreement between Karolinska Institutet, Sweden’s leading medical university in Stockholm, and the global biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, headquartered in London, represents a deeper form of collaboration between industry and academia (2). Both parties have agreed to strengthen their collaboration in cardio-metabolic research by creating a new center for cardio-metabolic medicine, the Karolinska Institutet/AstraZeneca Integrated Cardio Metabolic Center (KI/AZ ICMC). The center will operate within the Karolinska Institutet itself using the medical university’s facilities and organization but is financially fully funded by AstraZeneca. Researchers from both academia and industry will work side by side in the new center on shared projects of mutual interest. The center is overseen by a recently appointed academic director from the Karolinska Institutet, Professor Bo Angelin, reporting to a joint steering committee comprising an equal number of members from the Karolinska Institutet and AstraZeneca.

The KI/AZ ICMC is designed to conduct preclinical and clinical studies with the goal of advancing understanding of cardiovascular and metabolic disease pathophysiology and assessing new drug targets for AstraZeneca’s two biotech units, AstraZeneca Innovative Medicines and Early Development (iMed) and MedImmune. The vision is to combine industry’s resources and drug discovery experience with academia’s research capabilities. Together, this unique collaboration provides the opportunity to accelerate understanding of key aspects of cardio-metabolic diseases and to speed the development of new therapies.

What has made this partnership possible? The pharmaceutical industry has played a significant role in Sweden’s development, including Swedish exports. AstraZeneca was formed in the late 1990s through the merger of AstraAB of Sweden and Zeneca Group PLC of the UK—two companies with similar science-based cultures and a shared vision of the pharmaceutical industry. Scientists at the Karolinska Institutet and AstraAB/AstraZeneca have been involved in a number of collaborations over the years. The most recent global reorganization of AstraZeneca in 2013 concentrated research into three geographical sites worldwide, with Mölndal, Sweden, being one. A goal of this reorganization was to boost academic interactions, and the KI/AZ ICMC reflects that ambition. From the Karolinska Institutet’s perspective, this unique collaboration is a win-win solution that will boost its research output while providing input to AstraZeneca and, in particular, its Mölndal site (3).

What can we anticipate from this collaboration? It is definitely too early to say, but expectations are high for the center. We also realize, however, that this is a trial to see whether academic scientists and industrial scientists can work together efficiently given their very different orientations. Academic scientists are grounded in basic or translational research where discoveries lead the way, and industrial scientists inhabit a goal-oriented environment where key discoveries might be overlooked or obscured by the targeted search for another more specific end point. Combining scientists from these two very different research environments in a single center promises to be an interesting experiment in itself. The goal is that outcomes will exceed the solitary talents of each contributor.

So how is this new collaboration being viewed? Most of our academic colleagues have been enthusiastic. Some, however, have questioned whether we have “sold academia to industry.” Fears have also been expressed that “academia may lose its freedom.” But we take such arguments in stride, as it is the interesting prospects ahead that matter. With the shared mission of translating science into medicines and improving human health, with or without future financial goals, academia and pharma united have everything to gain.


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