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Big Pharma, universities invest together in drug discovery partnership

By David Schwartz
Published: September 12th, 2017

Apollo Therapeutics LLP — a drug discovery collaboration with three university and three pharma company partners — has funded, launched or planned more than half a dozen “novel and compelling” programs in “areas of high medical need,” and more than $11 million is on the table for the first four “milestoned project plans.” At least two more projects are in the final planning stages, and “multiple” additional programs are being evaluated.

That pipeline success is the result of a state-of-the-art drug discovery program that’s built on the decision making of a team of drug discovery experts — and that requires candor and quick thinking. Richard P. Butt, PhD, CEO at the Stevenage, UK-based enterprise, calls that “wholly new and revolutionary.”

Apollo was formed 18 months ago as Apollo Therapeutics Fund — with an original kitty of about $52 million — by AstraZeneca UK Ltd., Glaxo Group Ltd. and Johnson & Johnson Innovation-JJDC Inc. and the technology transfer offices of Imperial College London, University College London and the University of Cambridge (those TTOs are Imperial Innovations Group plc, UCL Business plc and Cambridge Enterprise Ltd., respectively). Each pharma will contribute about $13 million over six years to the venture, and each TTO will contribute about $4.5 million. The industry partners have also committed “R&D expertise and additional resources.”

The discovery program begins when Butt’s team talks to academics and TTO staff to identify prospects. One report has the team conducting as many as 100 interviews a year with scientists at the three schools; Butt notes that Apollo is “embedded” in the universities and can talk confidentially to any academic at any of the three.

His Drug Discovery Team (DDT), made up of ex-industry scientists, works with them to shape projects to bring forward for development in all therapy areas and modalities — including small molecules, peptides, proteins, antibodies and cell and gene therapies. The ideas they think can actually be commercialized go to the Apollo Therapeutics Investment Committee (AIC), chaired by Ian Tomlinson, a former senior vice president at GSK. The AIC, made up of representatives from the six partners, makes final investment decisions.

The candidates they pick start the development process. Lab work might take place at one of the universities, at one of the pharma companies or at “a contract company” — one of which could be the Milner Therapeutics Institute’s research labs, set to open at Cambridge next year. The three pharmas have first dibs on any therapeutics developed from any of the Apollo-funded programs; after that, it’s up to the TTO involved to outlicense the technology. The revenue gained from of any agreements will be divvied up among the six founding partners such that the originating university and TTO get “a percentage of future commercial revenues or outlicensing fees” and the others get the rest.

The system’s structure is the reason so many potential new pharmaceuticals are being researched, Butt says. “The AIC is made up of one member of each partner and an independent chair, and the DDT team members were recruited through an extensive recruitment process and were not ‘placed’ by either the AIC or the contributing partners,” he explains.

Starting with DDT interactions with academic scientists — “to date, we have seen more than 120 different academics face-to-face at the three universities,” he notes — the DDT “makes a determination of projects that are at the right stage and have the right data to initiate or continue a drug discovery program.”

A detailed article on the Apollo partnership appears in the August issue of Industry-Sponsored Research Management. To subscribe and access the full article, plus receive a $100 discount and a three-program distance learning collection on best practices in industry-university partnerships, CLICK HERE.

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