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Sanofi cultivates 'research ecosystem'
BARCELONA, Spain—With the goal of bringing together all of the necessary components to create what it calls a "research ecosystem" capable of realizing the promise of translational medicine, Sanofi recently signed a master research collaborative agreement with the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG), an international biomedical research institute supported by the Catalan government and the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation.
The partners will collaborate on a set of shared research programs using state-of-the-art experimental platforms, computational and bioinformatics approaches, medical genetics and epigenetics, with special emphasis in genetic and rare diseases. Financial details of the agreement were not released.
Within the framework of the agreement, Sanofi and the CRG have already initiated a first set of projects to discover innovative therapeutic approaches for infectious diseases, develop novel delivery systems using synthetic biology, decipher disease-relevant cellular trans-differentiation pathways and identify original targets from unexploited genomic transcription mechanisms. The partners will select and launch other unspecified collaborative projects within the three-year period of the agreement.
According to the partners, these projects will bring added value to basic research by offering a better understanding of disease for pathologies such as tuberculosis and cancer, and by helping to develop new therapeutic solutions for their treatment.
"We recognize that in order to deliver on our promise to address patients' needs, we need to tap into and enable innovation inside and outside our walls," says Dr. Maya Said, vice president for strategy, science policy and external innovation in Sanofi's R&D division. "Our new relationship with the CRG demonstrates our commitment to work with partners on conditions with unmet and growing medical needs.
"What we are doing with the CRG is an indication of where Sanofi is headed," Said continues. "As how we think about our entire approach to drug discovery and development evolves, we are trying to put all of the pieces we need together to better develop drugs that address patient needs. To do that effectively, the question we ask is, 'how can we accelerate science to get from the bench to the patients?' If you begin from that starting point, the only way science can be accelerated is if you put together around the table people who have the complementary expertise to do that."
In sum, "we're really trying to create a research ecosystem here," says Said. "This speaks to our ability to bring different partners to the table and how we look at open innovation. It's not about how you put the pieces together, but how to drive the ecosystem to achieve the things you would not be able to achieve independently of this ecosystem."
Known as the Centre de Regulació Genòmica in Spain, the CRG is a nonprofit foundation whose mission is to "discover and advance knowledge for the benefit of society, public health and economic prosperity." It receives most of its funding for research and infrastructures from the government of Catalonia through the Ministry of Economy and Knowledge and the Ministry of Health. Additional core funding is provided by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness and through an international partnership with the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). Other funding sources include competitive grants from public and private institutions at regional, national, European and international levels.
Located on the coast of Barcelonese Beach in the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park (PRBB), the CRG's five primary areas of research are bioinformatics and genomics; cell and developmental biology; genes and disease; gene regulation, stem cells and cancer; and systems biology. Among the center's other strategic partners are the Federación Española de Enfermedades Raras, the La Caixa Foundation, Fundacion Botin, Novartis and Belgium's VIB.
"Developing drugs with the understanding of what kinds of compounds would be viable potential solutions for therapeutic needs is something we do extremely well as a pharma company," says Said. "What a research center like CRG does very well is the basic science for that. What they bring to the table is expertise around biology, gene regulation and methodologies and approaches that complement what we have. We believe this partnership will be able to make the most out of the public funding investment. It also ensures that public funding is being used to develop therapies that impact patients and address unmet needs."
Dr. Luis Serrano, director of the CGR, tells ddn, "Going from basic science to biotechnology is a long jump, and it's not easy for research institutes. Partnering with a big pharma company is a good way to ensure excellence and that what we are doing has a higher probability of being translated into a higher level of biotechnology. In this respect, both sides profit from the pursuit of basic science."
Research "cannot remain distanced from the needs of society," Serrano opines. "Biology is getting ever closer to medicine, and an institute like the Centre for Genomic Regulation must ensure that its research has a positive impact on human health and national economies. We cannot do this alone, and we need to collaborate with strategic partners for this purpose."
The partnership's objective is "to accelerate science by bringing together these complementary sets of expertise with a translational research mindset," says Said, but she is critical of translational research efforts to date.
"I personally think that a lot of what has happened in the last 10 to 12 years is a breakdown in R&D productivity, which is really an issue that we in the pharma industry are dealing with," she says. "The issue is that as science seems to have progressed, we as an industry have not been able to translate that into better therapeutics. We moved from a world where we didn't know much about molecular biology to a world where the Human Genome Project gave us access to data, but we have not changed our drug discovery approach to exploit that data. We are still searching the space in the same way, but the difference is that the wealth of data available has expanded the search space.
The reason this whole thing breaks down is the assumption that data is translatable to information in humans, which we have proven wrong," she adds. "This is the gap we are trying to bridge now. We believe we can do it via a translational medicine mindset, but there needs to be a fundamental change in how we think about it."