Sanofi cultivates 'research ecosystem'

Pharma partners with Spain’s Centre for Genomic Regulation to explore potential of translational medicine

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BARCELONA, Spain—With the goal of bringing together all ofthe necessary components to create what it calls a "research ecosystem" capableof realizing the promise of translational medicine, Sanofi recently signed amaster research collaborative agreement with the Centre for Genomic Regulation(CRG), an international biomedical research institute supported by the Catalangovernment and the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation.
The partners will collaborate on a set of shared researchprograms using state-of-the-art experimental platforms, computational andbioinformatics approaches, medical genetics and epigenetics, with specialemphasis in genetic and rare diseases. Financial details of the agreement werenot released.
Within the framework of the agreement, Sanofi and the CRGhave already initiated a first set of projects to discover innovativetherapeutic approaches for infectious diseases, develop novel delivery systemsusing synthetic biology, decipher disease-relevant cellulartrans-differentiation pathways and identify original targets from unexploitedgenomic transcription mechanisms. The partners will select and launch otherunspecified collaborative projects within the three-year period of theagreement.
According to the partners, these projects will bring addedvalue to basic research by offering a better understanding of disease forpathologies such as tuberculosis and cancer, and by helping to develop newtherapeutic solutions for their treatment.
"We recognize that in order to deliver on our promise toaddress patients' needs, we need to tap into and enable innovation inside andoutside our walls," says Dr. Maya Said, vice president for strategy, sciencepolicy and external innovation in Sanofi's R&D division. "Our newrelationship with the CRG demonstrates our commitment to work with partners onconditions with unmet and growing medical needs.
"What we are doing with the CRG is an indication of whereSanofi is headed," Said continues. "As how we think about our entire approachto drug discovery and development evolves, we are trying to put all of thepieces we need together to better develop drugs that address patient needs. Todo that effectively, the question we ask is, 'how can we accelerate science toget from the bench to the patients?' If you begin from that starting point, theonly way science can be accelerated is if you put together around the tablepeople who have the complementary expertise to do that."
In sum, "we're really trying to create a research ecosystemhere," says Said. "This speaks to our ability to bring different partners tothe table and how we look at open innovation. It's not about how you put thepieces together, but how to drive the ecosystem to achieve the things you wouldnot be able to achieve independently of this ecosystem."
Known as the Centre de Regulació Genòmica in Spain, the CRGis a nonprofit foundation whose mission is to "discover and advance knowledgefor the benefit of society, public health and economic prosperity." It receivesmost of its funding for research and infrastructures from the government ofCatalonia through the Ministry of Economy and Knowledge and the Ministry ofHealth. Additional core funding is provided by the Spanish Ministry of Economyand Competitiveness and through an international partnership with the EuropeanMolecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). Other funding sources include competitivegrants from public and private institutions at regional, national, European andinternational levels.
Located on the coast of Barcelonese Beach in the BarcelonaBiomedical Research Park (PRBB), the CRG's five primary areas of research arebioinformatics and genomics; cell and developmental biology; genes and disease;gene regulation, stem cells and cancer; and systems biology. Among the center'sother strategic partners are the Federación Española de Enfermedades Raras, theLa Caixa Foundation, Fundacion Botin, Novartis and Belgium's VIB. 
"Developing drugs with the understanding of what kinds ofcompounds would be viable potential solutions for therapeutic needs issomething we do extremely well as a pharma company," says Said. "What aresearch center like CRG does very well is the basic science for that. Whatthey bring to the table is expertise around biology, gene regulation andmethodologies and approaches that complement what we have. We believe thispartnership 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 thatimpact patients and address unmet needs."
Dr. Luis Serrano, director of the CGR, tells ddn, "Going from basic science to biotechnology is along jump, and it's not easy for research institutes. Partnering with a bigpharma company is a good way to ensure excellence and that what we are doinghas a higher probability of being translated into a higher level ofbiotechnology. In this respect, both sides profit from the pursuit of basicscience."
Research "cannot remain distanced from the needs ofsociety," Serrano opines. "Biology is getting ever closer to medicine, and aninstitute like the Centre for Genomic Regulation must ensure that its researchhas a positive impact on human health and national economies. We cannot do thisalone, and we need to collaborate with strategic partners for this purpose."
The partnership's objective is "to accelerate science bybringing together these complementary sets of expertise with a translationalresearch mindset," says Said, but she is critical of translational researchefforts to date.
"I personally think that a lot of what has happened in thelast 10 to 12 years is a breakdown in R&D productivity, which is really anissue that we in the pharma industry are dealing with," she says. "The issue isthat as science seems to have progressed, we as an industry have not been ableto translate that into better therapeutics. We moved from a world where wedidn't know much about molecular biology to a world where the Human GenomeProject gave us access to data, but we have not changed our drug discoveryapproach to exploit that data. We are still searching the space in the sameway, but the difference is that the wealth of data available has expanded thesearch space.
The reason this whole thing breaks down is the assumptionthat data is translatable to information in humans, which we have provenwrong," she adds. "This is the gap we are trying to bridge now. We believe wecan do it via a translational medicine mindset, but there needs to be afundamental change in how we think about it."

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