Scientists show collaborative research is the key to future drug discovery
Last revised: December 2015
M. ALED EDWARDS has spent the past 10 years doing what many deemed impossible — convincing scientists in academia and the pharmaceutical industry to work together in an open-access, not-for-profit system to discover and validate targets for new medicines.
By pooling resources and collaborating in the early stages of drug development, he says, they avoid duplication, save time and money, increase knowledge of human biology, and dramatically improve the chances that new drugs will be successful in clinical trials. A growing number are embracing this sea change.
Dr. Edwards is a University of Toronto professor and chief executive of the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC), an international public-private partnership that supports the development of new medicines through noncompetitive research. Nine of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies are now on board. Their chemists are working with about 200 university scientists at SGC’s laboratories in Toronto and Oxford, England, to determine the properties of proteins involved in disease processes. This information reveals potential drug targets.
SGC researchers publish an average of two papers a week in the scientific literature, but their findings are not kept confidential until publication; they are released immediately into the public domain. “The model works,” says Dr. Edwards, “because we never file for patents.” They have now identified, mapped, and shared worldwide, the three-dimensional structures of more than 1,500 human proteins.
In spring 2014, the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital was the first clinical centre to become a full partner with SGC. Dr. Viviane Poupon, executive director of partnerships and strategic initiatives at the Neuro, says researchers there “embrace the collaborative spirit and very open process.” Finding new medicines for neurological conditions is especially difficult because the brain is so complex.
“There is no way that anyone can do it on their own; otherwise, it would have been done.” The synergy between SGC and the Neuro was obvious from the start, says Dr. Poupon. “There is a common vision that puts patients first.”
“Clinical proof of concept is where the lottery ends. Then the competition can start.” — Dr. Aled Edwards, CEO, Structural Genomics Consortium
The Structural Genomics Consortium is a world leader in open innovation. The unique relationship between its academics, pharmaceutical companies and government and philanthropic funding partners has to date resulted in more than 15 cancer clinical trials being launched and three Canadian companies created. The Consortium is seen globally as a model for academic-industry collaboration.