Tech Transfer eNews Blog

Despite the financial risks, new drug discovery vehicles proliferate on campus

By Jesse Schwartz
Published: June 19th, 2019

There is nothing like a big hit in the pharmaceutical space to put a university’s long-range plans for new research and infrastructure on a solid footing. In fact, large pharmaceutical companies are increasingly leaving the early-stages of drug development to universities and other research institutions. However, while opportunities in the drug discovery space abound, there is no denying the long, difficult road involved with bringing a new therapeutic to market.

It generally takes years or even decades to win FDA approval for a new drug, and the financial requirements of such a journey go well beyond what most federal grants will provide. One further complication: Pharmaceutical companies and other biotechnology investors are expecting a new drug discovery to be further along in its development than in years past before risking their own funds on its future prospects.

Nonetheless, undaunted by the immense challenges involved, a number of universities are sharpening their focus on drug discovery, developing specialized centers or programs — and even separate companies — aimed at identifying their most promising discoveries early on so they can then wrap them in a cocoon of expert guidance and support. The bet is that with added resources and a more strategic focus, more drug candidates will ultimately make it into clinical trials, significantly upping the chances for commercialization success.

One of the latest technology transfer-driven efforts to establish a drug-discovery vehicle comes from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Association (WARF), the storied TTO for the University of Wisconsin (UW) in Madison, WI. Aptly named WARF Therapeutics, the new organization is being headed by Jonathon Young, who spent more than 20 years in the pharmaceutical industry before joining WARF eight months ago.

Drug discovery is clearly a priority for WARF as the TTO has set aside millions of dollars in internal funding that will funnel through WARF Therapeutics toward selected drug discovery projects over the next five to eight years, explains Young. “There is a big gap where RO1 [National Institutes of Health Research Project Grant] funding ends and where pharmaceutical companies will get interested,” he explains. “So the strategy of WARF Therapeutics will be to provide not only resources … but capabilities and industry experience that was previously not accessible to UW professors in order to advance these programs further and to generate chemical assets that are novel, and that most importantly can be patented.”

Young adds that it is these patented chemical assets that will provide the value and inflection point to attract biotechnology companies, pharmaceutical firms and venture capital. However, he acknowledges that the business of drug discovery is very high risk. “For every 100 novel biological targets that are discovered and put into a drug discovery process, 99% of them will fail at some point in time,” he says. “Even those that get to Phase One clinical trials, 90% of those drugs are going to fail.”

However, Young notes, some reasons why drugs fail can be anticipated and avoided earlier in the development process if the proper processes are in place. “For example, sometimes the drug is not potent enough, sometimes it is not selective enough which leads to adverse side effects, and sometimes the drug does not reach the region of the body with the necessary concentrations to be effective,” he says. “One way to think about de-risking is to demonstrate that the drug has been optimized such that it succeeds in those areas that are very common failure points for a lot of other drug [candidates].”

A detailed article on university efforts to create drug development vehicles appears in the June issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. For subscription information, CLICK HERE

Posted under: Tech Transfer e-News

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