HOUSTON--Never one to let any moss grow underneath it, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center recently announced the establishment of a new specialized research institute. The Institute for Applied Cancer Science will seek to "identify and validate new cancer targets, convert the scientific knowledge into new cancer drugs and advance the novel agents into innovative clinical trials through a streamlined collaboration between academic medicine and the biotechnology industry."
The institute will focus on the development of a pipeline through multidisciplinary collaboration of several programs at MD Anderson, bringing together researchers from academia and industry. The disconnect between the different foci of academia and industry is something the leaders of the new institute refer to as the "valley of death" in the drug development process.
"Efficient conversion of discoveries into effective medicines will require seamless integration of not only discovery and applied science, but also the exploratory and goal-oriented cultures in academia and industry," Raymond DuBois, M.D., Ph.D., executive vice president and provost at MD Anderson, said in a press release. "Our institute leaders are highly accomplished in both realms and have outstanding experience in bridging the gap between them."
"Only 5 to 10 percent of potential cancer drugs make it from initial discovery all the way to patients as improved treatments. And more than half of those fail in Phase III clinical trials, the final step of development. That's costly not just economically, but costly to patients who are subjected to largely ineffective treatments," Ronald DePinho, M.D., president of MD Anderson, said in a press release. "Improving this unacceptable performance requires that we hit the reset button and develop a new organizational model that systematically secures the knowledge needed to fully understand key targets and develop a clear clinical path for new therapies."
The new institute will be led by Guilio Draetta, M.D., Ph.D., director, and Lynda Chin, M.D., scientific director, both former leaders of the Belfer Institute for Applied Cancer Science in Boston. Chin is also the chair of MD Anderson's Department of Genomic Medicine, in which Draetta is a professor. Both have significant experience in both academic and the pharmaceutical industry, with Draetta holding appointments at Pharmacia and Merck as well as being a Presidential Scholar at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and with Chin serving as a professor at the Harvard Medical School Department of Dermatology and Dana-Farber Department of Medical Oncology, as well as being co-founder of AVEO Pharmaceuticals.
Draetta and Chin will be leading the team towards several ambitious goals in terms of both scientific and financial achievements. The team will be focusing on building a science-driven drug development pipeline at MD Anderson, and have set a goal of developing drug candidates for biomarker-driven clinical trials in five years. MD Anderson will commit a maximum of $15 million per year for five years to the new institute, in addition to facility space, technology and support services. For its part, the Institute for Applied Cancer Science is expected to reach significant financial performance markers, which include raising $2.5 million in external funding in its first year and raising at least $42 million by its fifth year. MD Anderson itself has invested more than $623 million in research, an increase of about 40 percent in the past five years.
Draetta says that they certainly hope that funding climate will stay the same or grow, noting that "We understand that to be able to make this an evergreen operation, we need to have very clear timelines and really show that within the first five years we have some notable evidence of success, otherwise we shouldn't be doing this."
"From a drug discovery perspective, we do small molecule chemistry, and we have some top-notch chemists from the pharmaceutical industry, because we believe that you don't just need the typical chemistry expertise, but you need medicinal chemistry expertise [as well]. We've paid the same level of attention to making compounds of high potency [and] selectivity, but also the compounds that have the appropriate pharmaceutical characteristics that are required," says Draetta. "We hope that by increasing the stringency around the biology of the target and also moving forward with molecules that have better qualities than those that are put into a patient…the combination of these three or four factors should give us an exponential ability to reduce the low probability of success in the clinic."
The truly collaborative nature of the new institute is a great strength, he adds.
"We're imbedding drug discovery operations within the biology labs...we'd rather encourage, as we do on the floor that I'm on here at MD Anderson, people doing work together," says Draetta. "From our trainees trying to find new kinds of genes, to our chemists trying to find compounds to target those genes, to the clinician scientists that work with us that can really say 'Aha! You want to go in breast cancer, these are the challenges today, these are those cancers that we cannot cure.'"
Draetta says that in 2011, MD Anderson published close to 4,000 articles, "probably 10 percent of which are in the top 18 journals," he estimates. In fiscal year 2011, more than 108,000 patients received cancer care at MD Anderson, 34,000 of which were new patients. In addition, 2011 also marked MD Anderson's 70-year anniversary. The institute has ranked No. 1 in cancer care in the U.S. News & World Report's "Best Hospitals" survey for eight of the past 10 years, including 2011. The institute amassed nearly 10,000 registrants for clinical trials investigating therapies and diagnostic tests in fiscal year 2011, marking it as the largest such program in the United States.