Nurturing a Delicate Balance: UCSF's Industry Partnerships

When UCSF researcher Charles Chiu, MD, PhD, recently renewed his center’s partnership with Abbott Diagnostics, it marked a milestone in the University’s efforts to keep its industry partnerships alive and well.

Abbott’s renewed funding for the Viral Diagnostics and Discovery Center (VDDC),  which Chiu directs at China Basin near UCSF’s Mission Bay campus, underscores a common goal of accelerating the translation of discoveries in the laboratories into clinical therapies.

Historically, many academic-industry partnerships are not renewed, for a variety of reasons. But increasingly, University and industry representatives are finding more reasons to work together. UCSF recently announced several new or expanded relationships with major pharmaceutical companies.

Charles ChiuCharles Chiu, director of the Viral Diagnostics and Discovery Center at China Basin, recently renewed the UCSF center's partnership with Abbott Diagnostics, a move that underscores a common a goal of accelerating the translation of discoveries in laboratories into clinical therapies.

These agreements underscore UCSF’s renewed commitment to finding innovative approaches to bridging the gap between basic research and real-world applications. As such, they are the result of several years of effort on the part of the UCSF Office of Sponsored Research, Office of Technology Management and others in assessing how these mutually beneficial collaborations can progress more smoothly, while protecting the academic freedom and basic research for which UCSF is widely known.

Abbott’s support for the VDDC, for instance, is of mutual benefit. Abbott brings financial support for a center where Chiu oversees high-risk, early-stage virus discovery research, which the National Institutes of Health is not likely to fund.

Abbott also provides viral samples that the center tests. In return, Abbott gets the right to benefit commercially from discoveries made at the center from the work on its samples, which may lead to identification of new viruses by the center or Abbott, as well as the opportunity to license discoveries made by the center for commercial development of new, lifesaving therapies.

“Abbott exhibited quite a bit of forward thinking in this case,” said Chiu, a faculty researcher in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and the Division of Infectious Diseases at UCSF.“They’re willing to invest in risky, early-stage research. If, for example, we were to identify a new virus that’s associated with cancer, the commercial implications could be huge.”

Discovering Lifesaving Therapies

UCSF Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH, hailed the agreement as one of many that can not only benefit researchers and businesses, but also help discover potentially lifesaving therapies.

“It is great to see the recognition of the value that UCSF’s scientific excellence brings for this project, as well as so many other collaborations between UCSF and industry partners that allow us to translate academic research into products and services that benefit society,” said Desmond-Hellmann.

Erik Lium, PhD, assistant vice chancellor of research at UCSF, says the University’s Industry Contracts Division and the Office of Technology Management, in collaboration with UCSF investigators and campus leadership, have established a significant number of master research and clinical trial contracts with pharmaceutical and biotech companies.

“These agreements substantially accelerate the initiation of industry-funded projects, are a foundation for productive, long-term relationships with industry partners and fundamentally support our mission of advancing health worldwide™,” Lium said.

Among the new pacts between University researchers and industry partners:

  • Sanofi-Aventis. On Jan. 12, Sanofi-Aventis and UCSF formalized two research and development collaborations,  making the European biotech giant the first industry partner for UCSF’s Program for Breakthrough Biomedical Research. As part of the agreement, a joint steering committee of UCSF and Sanofi-Aventis will choose from among UCSF-generated proposals identified for their scientific excellence, and Sanofi-Aventis will fund up to five grants a year.
     
  • Bayer. On Jan. 11, Bayer HealthCare’s pharmaceutical division announced a master agreement with UCSF at the same time it opened a 49,000-square-foot US Innovation Center at Mission Bay. “The master agreement with UCSF sets the stage for a long and successful public-private partnership which builds our pipeline and brings novel medicines to patients,” Andreas Fibig, chairman of the board of management of Bayer Schering Pharma AG, Germany, said in a statement.
     
  • Pfizer. In November, Pfizer and UCSF established an open network of researchers called the Center for Therapeutic Innovation (CTI) that could advance up to 10 projects at a time, bring UCSF up to $85 million in research support and milestone and licensing payments, and accelerate the development of biological therapeutics for patients. The CTI builds on an earlier partnership between Pfizer and the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3), in which UCSF is a partner. QB3 is headquartered at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus.

Streamlining the Translational Process

Master agreements of the sort signed with Bayer bring efficiency to a historically slow process – the process of initiating industry-funded research projects. A master contract serves as an umbrella agreement, defining the terms and conditions for future research projects, and eliminates the need to negotiate a new contract for each new project. The process of turning a research discovery into a new medication or therapy is already slow, estimated to take more than 15 years and $1 billion per drug, and all parties are looking to move things along wherever possible.

“Over the last five years, we’ve shortened the time to initiate projects dramatically by looking very carefully at our business processes,” Lium said. “We’re trying to bring a commonsense, real-world approach to what we’re doing.”

Among the trends driving the collaborations are the University’s need for research funding – increasingly scarce in a time of government cutbacks – and industry’s need for innovation at a time when the pipeline for new medications has slowed. “Industry is amenable to, and motivated to work with, academics because academics bring an innovative approach to problems,” Lium said. “UCSF brings enormous breadth and depth of innovation.”

Striking a ‘Magical Balance’

One of the most common hurdles to partnership renewals is what Chiu referred to as a “culture clash.” For instance, Chiu pointed to different priorities when it comes to publishing research results. University scientists often have publication as a primary goal; industry is often more interested in protecting its intellectual property.

At the same time, publication can be to industry’s advantage, as a paper in a prestigious scientific journal gives visibility to its work. The University never relinquishes the right to publish, even if the results of a scientific study don’t turn out as hoped. Industry partners may review and submit comments to authors on applicable manuscripts prior to their submission for publication, but can’t block or delay them for an unreasonable time.

“Our industry partners understand that the dissemination of information for public benefit is a core principle of the University of California, and are supportive in this regard,” Lium said.

One company with a long history of working with UCSF is GE Healthcare, which makes some of the most commonly used scientific machines. “The UCSF-GE relationship dates back 30 years or longer, starting with UCSF Radiology and General Electric,” said Jonathan Murray, general manager of cross business programs at GE Healthcare. “GE is a leader in the field of medical imaging, and UCSF is a leader in the clinical application of imaging. The relationship proved beneficial for patients’ health care and in demonstrating the possibilities of new science.”

Recently, GE Healthcare helped inaugurate Byers Hall, the home of QB3 on the Mission Bay campus, to accommodate a powerful, advanced MRI scanner. A GE Healthcare-UCSF collaboration conducted at that facility recently bore fruit, with a presentation in December that showed the first results in humans of a new technology that promises to rapidly assess the presence and aggressiveness of prostate tumors in real time by imaging the tumor’s metabolism.

Murray says there needs to be a “magical balance” of academia, industry and government to produce scientific innovations and bring them to the public. He sees biotechnology research as following a model demonstrated in the development of the Internet, the semiconductor industry and Silicon Valley itself, which were all rooted in government-funded academic research that ultimately was commercialized.

“There’s a role for industry, a role for academia and a role for government,” Murray said. “If we strike the right balance of public funding, pure academic research and commercial innovations, we can perfect the technology so it can be used by the general population. With UCSF and QB3, we feel we have found that magical balance and are excited to explore the future together.”

Photo by Susan Merrell