Town meets gown in J&J-Vandy deal

Janssen Pharmaceutica and Vanderbilt University forge industry-academia research partnership

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NASHVILLE, Tenn.—The sometimes uneasy relationship among science, industry and academia may be a thing of the past if the licensing and research agreement between J&J's Janssen Pharmaceutica unit and Vanderbilt University becomes a model that's adopted by others. And that's exactly what Dr. Jeffrey Conn, director of Vanderbilt's program in drug discovery, predicts will happen.

Conn, who was head of neuroscience at Merck, was recruited five years ago by Vanderbilt to launch an academic lab and effort in drug discovery "from ground zero."
The program was brand new for Vanderbilt, he notes, "and probably brand new for academia. The last five years there has been a major shift by NIH to encourage this kind of effort via the grant mechanism. Big Pharma is also eager to find ways to work with academia. Over the next five years this trend will continue to grow."

Conn notes that much like his own background at Merck, key members of his team have a wealth of pharmaceutical industry experience, including Dr. Carrie Jones (behavioral pharmacology), Dr. Dave Weaver (director, lead discovery), and Dr. Craig Lindsley (director of medicinal chemistry).

Conn ticks off four major parts of the Vanderbilt-based program that is now in place—a compound library and robotics capability for high-throughput screening; medicinal chemistry (which he notes is rarely found in the university setting); a behavioral pharmacology group; and drug metabolism and pharmacokinetics. Vanderbilt researchers will take compounds through the drug optimization process.

This infrastructure serves Vanderbilt in two ways; as a resource for studies in other areas such as cancer, bone, and diabetes; and—its major focus—CNS research on psychiatric and neurological disorders with a heavy emphasis on schizophrenia and Parkinson's. "We're also interested in orphan diseases such as fragile X, a childhood developmental disorder that is the most common cause of autism," Conn adds.

Since R&D at Janssen Pharmaceutica is completely devoted to CNS research, its funding of Vanderbilt's program to discover novel drugs for the treatment of schizophrenia was a natural fit.

Under the terms of the agreement, the university grants Janssen a worldwide exclusive license to existing compounds acting on a specified neurotransmitter receptor target, and provides a mechanism for the discovery and licensing of additional novel compounds over the next three years. Vanderbilt will receive $10 million over three years and up to $100 million in milestone payments. Janssen will bring its expertise to the partnership through input on compound design, synthesis and later-stage safety and pharmacokinetic studies.

Dr. Stef Heylen, chief medical officer, CNS research and early development at Janssen, notes the trend in the pharmaceutical industry is "to look everywhere for results." With so much work ongoing, you have to scan the entire field, he says, which makes strengthening the team with an organization such as the one led by Conn a highly attractive idea that Heylen thinks will be applicable to the broader pharmaceutical community. DDN

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