Novartis forges UC Berkeley pact, sees drug hopefuls in three years

ZURICH (Reuters) - Novartis’s NOVN.S research head expects an alliance with a University of California chemistry lab to produce drug candidates within three years as the Swiss company accelerates its hunt for new medicines.

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Swiss drugmaker Novartis AG is seen at its headquarters in Basel, Switzerland, January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann/File Photo

Novartis announced the Novartis-Berkeley Center for Proteomics and Chemistry Technologies on Thursday. It did not give financial details but said the multi-year deal targets “undruggable illnesses” like cancers that have eluded treatments.

Basel-based Novartis hopes Berkeley scientists including Daniel Nomura, the professor who runs the lab, will speed its search for the Achilles’ heels of hard-to-treat diseases.

“I do believe this chemistry provides a shortcut to really difficult targets,” said Jay Bradner, who moved from Harvard University last year to head the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass.

“I expect within three years we will have identified suitable candidates for definitive drug development.”

Academic tie-ups have produced some of Novartis’s biggest triumphs.

Some two decades ago, its scientists teamed with Oregon Health & Science University researchers on Gleevec, the blood cancer drug that became Novartis’s top seller.

In August, Novartis won approval for Kymriah, a first-of-its-kind gene-modifying immunotherapy for leukemia pioneered by University of Pennsylvania scientists.

Drug companies have big incentives to improve drug discovery efforts.

Returns on R&D investment at the top 12 drug companies were just 3.7 percent in 2016, down from 10.1 percent in 2010, consultancy Deloitte has said. Research costs are rising as insurers ratchet up price pressure.

Meanwhile, old drugs like Gleevec have lost patent protection, elevating Novartis’s urgency to find new medicines to rejuvenate sales not expected to grow until next year.

Novartis just hired a chief digital officer to improve how it uses data in drug discovery and development.


In enlisting Nomura’s lab, Novartis gets reinforcements to help find elusive hotspots on the surfaces of proteins where drugs can latch on and disrupt their role in fueling disease.

For Nomura, Novartis’s deep pockets offer big opportunities.

“Novartis is opening up their internal resources to us... enabling us to do things on a scale we couldn’t accomplish in an academic setting,” Nomura said in an email, adding students will get an up-close look at the industrial side of research.

Bradner said Novartis is seeking similar partnerships elsewhere in academia.

“Drug discovery is not best performed secretly, in private and in isolation,” he said. “I am betting this team of blue sky investigators in academia, paired with our ruthless drug hunters at Novartis, will arrive at more creative, more brave and more definitive solutions than either group on their own.”

Reporting by John Miller and Paul Arnold