* EU public-private project aims to boost drug discovery
* Companies and academia to pool 500,000 compounds
* Bayer, Sanofi, AstraZeneca, J&J among participants
By Ben Hirschler
LONDON, Feb 7 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.