University-Industry Engagement Week

Triple Helix partnership seeks to tackle COVID-19 and prevent future pandemics

By David Schwartz
Published: September 1st, 2020

A detailed article on the READDI university-industry partnership’s “extreme open science” model appears in the August issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor.  For subscription information, click here.

The collaborations under way to create vaccines and therapeutics for COVID-19 are almost too numerous to mention, but one of them, a collaboration of academia, industry and government called the Rapidly Emerging Antiviral Drug Discovery Initiative (READDI), is more ambitious than most: The global collaboration has set its goal at raising $500 million to generate five new drugs with human safety and dosing data (up to Phase II clinical trials) in five years to be ready for the next pandemic.

“Our goal is to jumpstart antiviral drug development for rapidly emerging new viruses, even before the virus emerges,” READDI asserts. The initiative will focus on three viral families (coronavirus, flavivirus and alphavirus) that cause the vast majority of epidemics and pandemics.

READDI leaders say they are using the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative, or DNDi, as a model for non-profit drug research and development. Established in 2003, DNDi has developed eight treatments for five deadly diseases, which have saved millions of lives.

READDI projects will adopt what it calls “extreme open science” methods, meaning they will share drug discovery progress in real time. The open science model, they say, promotes faster drug discovery, bringing potentially life-saving drugs to market sooner and more cheaply.

“We (academia) will be identifying the targets, but we’ll need help at the back end through partnerships with pharma in terms of late stage development and distribution,” says John Bamforth, PhD, director of the University of North Carolina Eshelman School of Pharmacy’s Institute for Innovation and member of the READDI Board of Directors. “We all believe the reality is a university can’t bring drugs to market. DNDi handed over the drugs largely to drug companies, and we’re trying to contact them in such a way that there will be global access.”

Bamforth likens much of the current approach to the pandemic to that of “five-year-olds playing soccer,” without much organization or cohesion. That is, a lot of money is being put into funding for vaccines or therapeutics for COVID-19, and “a lot of people are being opportunistic about repurposing stuff,” he asserts. “From the READDI perspective we want to have more thoughtful, strategic thinking about the scientific challenge and strong partnerships at the university and pharma levels.”

Indicative of that approach is READDI’s co-founder (along with UNC-Chapel Hill and the Eshelman Institute), the Structural Genomics Consortium, which has 13 contributing pharma industry partners, along with UNC, Oxford University, the University of Toronto, and Unicamp UCLA (the official philanthropy arm of the Students of UCLA), and others. SGC’s U.S. laboratory is located in the Eshelman Institute.

In terms of financial backing, Bamforth notes that READDI has already received some funds philanthropically, with the potential for additional donations not only from the state, but from federal governments around the world. The group anticipates future collaborations with government agencies such as the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA).

As Bamforth sees it, research will be conducted by project teams, with each one comprised of “key opinion leaders from university and industry.” With more than one dozen universities and pharma companies already involved, he continues, the participants share common interests that have been clarified further by the ongoing pandemic.

“What it has created is folks realizing that to get to solutions that will benefit broader humanity we have to do a better job collaborating and planning,” he asserts. “A year ago, none of us thought we’d be in ‘Zoom heaven’ every day. It created a kind of jolt to the system. With scientists at universities and in pharma, there is no one who says they do not at least want to investigate collaboration.”

“I believe broadly in public-private partnerships,” adds Kumar Singh Saikatendu, senior director of drug discovery sciences at Takeda Pharmaceuticals Biology, a READDI participant. “We are today with COVID where we were with HIV in the 1980s; between the first patient and [an effective] drug took 18 years, and we do not know how many billions of dollars. Today’s generation wants to do exactly that in far fewer years. The technology is there; the fundamental transformative question is can scientists collectively do it?”

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