NEW YORK—A groundbreaking partnership has been struck between New York neighbors Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), Rockefeller University and Weill Cornell Medical College and Osaka, Japan-based Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd., and it’s a radical departure from the typical academia-industry collaboration arrangement.
Like many such partnerships, the pioneering Tri-Institutional Therapeutics Discovery Institute Inc. (Tri-I TDI) aims to “expedite early-stage drug discovery into innovative treatments and therapies for patients,” but it breaks from the mold in one key way: Although many collaborations are founded with a specific goal—a compound, unmet medical need or disease area—in mind, this one has no clearly defined commercial path.
“This is not a me-too operation,” stresses Dr. David Scheinberg, Experimental Therapeutics Center chairman at MSKCC. “We intend for this collaboration to be completely open to the best ideas and not restricted to the ideas of the larger commercial market. These can range from cancer to neurological disorders to cardiovascular disease, and many other unmet medical needs—whatever seems to make the most science.”
According to Scheinberg, the current state of drug discovery is fragmented and wasteful, and success is often hindered by structural, intellectual and funding barriers that make it difficult to translate basic research into clinical applications.
“When you focus on a specific compound or disease, other things get left out. Our idea is to tackle the best opportunities for making a difference,” he says.
Announced Oct. 1 after announcing $20 million in financial gifts, the Tri-I TDI will focus on the early stages of developing compounds that make possible proof-of-concept studies—those that increase the likelihood that targeting a specific biologic pathway can favorably alter the course of a disease. Initially, the partnership with Takeda will focus on small chemical molecules, with the goal of expanding later into monoclonal antibodies, biologics and molecular diagnostics and imaging.
“All parties will have the same responsibilities, which are to provide exciting, innovative new therapeutic ideas. For each project, we will have defined schedules for deliverables, and projects will come and go depending on their success. Takeda will provide the medicinal chemistry and drug development expertise that the academic institutions do not have,” Scheinberg explains.
The independent, nonprofit institute will have its own scientific advisory board and board of directors, and will be funded by philanthropy and direct contributions from MSKCC, Rockefeller and Weill Cornell. Trials may occasionally be run at the three institutions’ clinical and translational science centers and clinical trial offices. Each scientist’s home institution will retain its intellectual property. The institute will locate its medicinal chemistry activities on the top floor of the new, state-of-the-art Belfer Research Building at Weill Cornell, which is slated to open in January.
The Tri-I TDI may seek additional collaborators to create intellectual property as needed. Candidate drugs may be licensed out to complete the later steps of drug development, such as manufacturing and carrying out clinical trials.
While the three institutions have a long history of collaborating on research and even merging advanced degree programs, working with a pharma with the resources Takeda has will bridge the critical gap between the laboratory bench and the patient’s bedside, according to Dr. Carl F. Nathan, chairman of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell.
“Working side-by-side with an industrial partner is much more fun, and you really do learn a lot about what goes into making a drug. This makes your thinking as an academic much more productive because you are thinking about translational medicine,” says Nathan.
Projects that will be tackled could range from addressing the developing world’s most deadly diseases, such as tuberculosis and malaria, to Alzheimer’s, cancer, HIV, heart disease and obesity, to neglected or orphan diseases that afflict small numbers of people. Nathan echoes Scheinberg’s comments by noting that the Tri-I TDI will select research projects that hold the greatest scientific promise and present the most innovative hypotheses.
“What we have specifically put into our mission statement is that estimations of market potential are not relevant,” he says. “We don’t have much faith in the calculation of that. We’re not business or market analysts or drug companies, but our open attitude is feasible and will in fact translate to medically important advances in time.”
Takeda did not respond to interview requests. In a statement announcing the partnership, Dr. Tadataka Yamada, Takeda’s director and chief medical and scientific officer, said, “drug discovery is a remarkably complex undertaking that constantly pushes at the frontiers of science. At Takeda, we believe that the greatest successes result from partnership, and this collaboration sets a new standard. This industry-academic partnership will combine the spirit of innovation in academia with the resources and talents of industry, and we are confident it will lead to remarkable new insights.”