‘Instituting’ some changes

New MD Anderson institute to bridge academia, industry ‘valley of death’

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HOUSTON—Never one to let any moss grow underneath it, theUniversity of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center recently announced the establishmentof a new specialized research institute. The Institute for Applied CancerScience will seek to "identify and validate new cancer targets, convert thescientific knowledge into new cancer drugs and advance the novel agents intoinnovative clinical trials through a streamlined collaboration between academicmedicine and the biotechnology industry." 
The institute will focus on the development of a pipelinethrough multidisciplinary collaboration of several programs at MD Anderson,bringing together researchers from academia and industry. The disconnectbetween the different foci of academia and industry is something the leaders ofthe new institute refer to as the "valley of death" in the drug developmentprocess.
"Efficient conversion of discoveries into effectivemedicines will require seamless integration of not only discovery and appliedscience, but also the exploratory and goal-oriented cultures in academia andindustry," Dr. Raymond DuBois, executive vice president and provost atMD Anderson, said in a press release. "Our institute leaders are highlyaccomplished in both realms and have outstanding experience in bridging the gapbetween them."
"Only 5 to 10 percent of potential cancer drugs make it frominitial discovery all the way to patients as improved treatments. And more thanhalf 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 subjectedto largely ineffective treatments," Dr. Ronald DePinho, president of MDAnderson, said in a press release. "Improving this unacceptable performancerequires that we hit the reset button and develop a new organizational modelthat systematically secures the knowledge needed to fully understand key targetsand develop a clear clinical path for new therapies."
The new institute will be led by Drs. Guilio Draetta, director, and Lynda Chin, scientific director, both former leadersof the Belfer Institute for Applied Cancer Science in Boston. Chin is also thechair of MD Anderson's Department of Genomic Medicine, in which Draetta is aprofessor. Both have significant experience in both academic and thepharmaceutical industry, with Draetta holding appointments at Pharmacia andMerck as well as being a Presidential Scholar at the Dana-Farber CancerInstitute, and with Chin serving as a professor at the Harvard Medical SchoolDepartment of Dermatology and Dana-Farber Department of Medical Oncology, aswell as being co-founder of AVEO Pharmaceuticals.
Draetta and Chin will be leading the team towards severalambitious goals in terms of both scientific and financial achievements. Theteam will be focusing on building a science-driven drug development pipeline atMD Anderson, and have set a goal of developing drug candidates forbiomarker-driven clinical trials in five years. MD Anderson will commit amaximum of $15 million per year for five years to the new institute, inaddition to facility space, technology and support services. For its part, theInstitute for Applied Cancer Science is expected to reach significant financialperformance markers, which include raising $2.5 million in external funding inits first year and raising at least $42 million by its fifth year. MD Andersonitself has invested more than $623 million in research, an increase of about 40percent in the past five years.
Draetta says that they certainly hope that funding climatewill stay the same or grow, noting that "We understand that to be able to makethis an evergreen operation, we need to have very clear timelines and reallyshow 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 moleculechemistry, and we have some top-notch chemists from the pharmaceuticalindustry, because we believe that you don't just need the typical chemistryexpertise, but you need medicinal chemistry expertise [as well]. We've paid thesame level of attention to making compounds of high potency [and] selectivity,but also the compounds that have the appropriate pharmaceutical characteristicsthat are required," says Draetta. "We hope that by increasing the stringencyaround the biology of the target and also moving forward with molecules that havebetter qualities than those that are put into a patient…the combination ofthese three or four factors should give us an exponential ability to reduce thelow probability of success in the clinic."
The truly collaborative nature of the new institute is agreat strength, he adds.
"We're imbedding drug discovery operations within thebiology labs ... we'd rather encourage, as we do on the floor that I'm on here atMD Anderson, people doing work together," says Draetta. "From our traineestrying to find new kinds of genes, to our chemists trying to find compounds totarget those genes, to the clinician scientists that work with us that canreally say 'Aha! You want to go in breast cancer, these are the challengestoday, these are those cancers that we cannot cure.'"
Draetta says that in 2011, MD Anderson published close to4,000 articles, "probably 10 percent of which are in the top 18 journals," heestimates. In fiscal year 2011, more than 108,000 patients received cancer careat MD Anderson, 34,000 of which were new patients. In addition, 2011 alsomarked MD Anderson's 70-year anniversary. The institute has ranked No. 1 incancer care in the U.S. News & World Report's "Best Hospitals" survey foreight of the past 10 years, including 2011. The institute amassed nearly 10,000registrants for clinical trials investigating therapies and diagnostic tests infiscal year 2011, marking it as the largest such program in the United States.

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