* EU public-private project aims to boost drug discovery
* Companies and academia to pool 500,000 compounds
* Bayer, Sanofi, AstraZeneca, J&J among participants
LONDON, Feb 7 (Reuters) - Seven European drugmakers are to pool their research efforts with academic scientists and smaller companies in a new 196 million euros ($265 million) project designed to find tomorrow's medicines.
The project, backed by the European Union, is the latest example of the drugs industry exploring ways to share early-stage research, effectively taking lessons from the kind of open innovation that gave the world Linux software.
As part of the European Lead Factory scheme, pharmaceutical companies will contribute at least 300,000 chemical compounds from their in-house collections and a further 200,000 will be developed jointly by academia and small firms.
The idea is to use crowdsourcing to generate novel ideas for tackling certain diseases, which can then be tested by screening compounds using shared pharmaceutical industry know-how.
"It's a big change for companies because their compound libraries have usually been kept very secret," said Ton Rijnders, scientific director of Dutch non-profit group TI Pharma, who is helping to run the project.
"They are doing this because it is cheaper than building ever larger libraries on their own - and partnering with academics gives them access to innovative ideas."
The seven drugmakers involved in the scheme are Bayer , AstraZeneca, Sanofi, Lundbeck , Merck KGaA, UCB and Janssen, the European arm of Johnson & Johnson.
Academic partners include universities in Germany, Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark.
The programme is supported by the EU-led Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), which supports early-stage collaborative research in conjunction with academia.
The IMI was set up five years ago in a bid to re-establish Europe as the "pharmacy of the world" and close a growing gap with United States and Asia on drug research.
For academic researchers, the scheme will offer unprecedented access to industry chemical collections. Industry, meanwhile, should benefit from having independent scientists taking a fresh look at their assets.
Drugmakers often have scores of compounds sitting in warehouses or freezers with no apparent use, following initially promising tests that led nowhere.
But there are many examples of drugs originally meant for one disease being repurposed for another. One high-profile case is AZT, originally an unsuccessful cancer drug that became the first effective treatment for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health last May launched a similar pilot project to test experimental drugs provided by manufacturers and several other public-private drug research partnerships are at various stages of development.