Going forward on the Fast Track

GSK’s Discovery Fast Track Challenge begins second year in North America and extends to Europe

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PHILADELPHIA—The 2014 Discovery Fast Track Challenge from GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is underway, once again welcoming submissions for new approaches to drug discovery. This is the second year of the program, which seeks to accelerate the timeline of advancing research-stage drug candidates into novel medicines. Registration for Europe closed on April 23, with registration in North America set to close May 16. Up to 10 scientists will be selected in each region, with the results to be announced late this year.
Last year, the program received nearly 150 entries from a collection of 70 universities, academic research institutions clinics and hospitals in the United States and Canada, covering 17 therapeutic areas. Pearl Huang, global head of GSK’s Discovery Partnerships with Academia (DPAc), says the submissions fell into fields such as oncology, anti-infectives, dermatology and renal biology, and selected entries focused on disease areas such as antibiotic resistance, cancer and malaria. There were eight winners, whose screens are currently underway.
Participants submit non-confidential details explaining the biological targets or pathways they are focused on and how the research could affect future drug development. Once the submission period is over, a panel of GSK DPAc scientists do a blind review of the entries before choosing the top candidates. Those whose entries are selected work with the DPAc team, which sponsors the challenge, to test their work on disease pathways or their targets against GSK’s compound library. Should a compound be identified that shows activity, the winning investigators could receive an offer for a formal DPAc partnership.
“As the Discovery Fast Track challenge is open to all principal investigators and is not restricted to any particular disease type or target strategy, it allows us to find and partner with those academics who have the most innovative and original ideas and capabilities,” Duncan Holmes, head of the European DPAc, said in a news release.
GSK noted during last year’s program that the competition aspect of Discovery Fast Track allows them to avoid initial contract negotiations, “which are often perceived as the biggest bottleneck in the drug discovery process,” and can take up to two years to finalize. DPAc, which sponsors the challenge, focuses on a new tactic in drug discovery, in which academic partners are a pivotal part of the process, sharing risk and reward with GSK.
Huang credits Albert Einstein—specifically, two quotes attributed to him—as one of the sources of inspiration for the program.
“There were two quotes that we would refer to as we were putting this together and trying to make it happen, and the first one was, we thought, relevant to the challenge we have in the pharmaceutical industry: the quote that’s attributed to him is ‘The definition of insanity is when you do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result,’” says Huang. “So that was kind of our key to go on, and that’s the spirit in which we put together Discovery Fast Track. The other quote from him is another famous one, which is ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge.’ So in the very early discovery space where we’re trying to understand the new science but also really pick out the science that is relevant to human biology, there are a lot of things that we need to imagine would have to be in place in order to deliver a medicine, so it’s that openness and that mindset that we believe is necessary to bring in truly creative ideas and truly creative people to come in and do problem-solving with us for drug discovery.”
Collaboration like this, between industry and academia, is “absolutely critical,” says Huang, as “there’s no way a single institution can have expertise in every field and every area that we’re interested in.”
“We never know where the breakthrough’s going to come, and so when a breakthrough happens, rather than take the time to build expertise internally to try to catch up with the experts on the outside, it just makes much more sense to partner with the people who already know what to do but don’t have the capability to do the engineering of drug discovery and development,” she explains.

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