Three of the world’s biggest drugmakers can agree on this—the research and development model for creating new drugs needs a serious kick in the rear. Pfizer, Merck, and Eli Lilly, through a collaboration hatched by Boston-based PureTech Ventures, have agreed to put $39 million into a new Boston company called Enlight Biosciences, whose job will be to create technologies that can enable researchers to make breakthrough drugs.
The venture has attracted very big names. The co-founders include Nobel Laureate H. Robert Horvitz, a biology professor at MIT, and Raju Kucherlapati, a genetics professor at Harvard Medical School who co-founded Millennium Pharmaceuticals and Abgenix. Enlight’s team also includes a pair of PureTech partners with loads of drug industry experience: Frank Douglas, former chief scientific officer at Aventis, and Bennett Shapiro, former executive vice president of basic research and worldwide licensing at Merck.
Enlight’s stated goal is to foster development of new technologies that can help the industry break out of its funk. Despite pumping tens of billions into research and development every year, including $44.5 billion last year according to an industry trade group, the pharmaceutical industry gets a lousy return on that investment. Only 19 new drugs were approved by the U.S. FDA last year, the fewest in 24 years. An estimated one out of every 10 drugs that enters clinical trials ever makes it through the gauntlet of tests to become a marketed product.
“The biopharmaceutical industry has a great need for innovative enabling technologies that will catalyze fundamental transformation of the drug discovery and development process,” said Steven Paul, executive vice president of science and technology for Eli Lilly, in a statement. “A collaborative entrepreneurial initiative such as Enlight that is dedicated to such technological innovation in R&D meets that need in an ideal way.”
Historical examples of what the founders see as enabling technologies are polymerase-chain reaction machines that do DNA analysis; genetic engineering techniques that use more human DNA than mouse DNA, and therefore make better-tolerated drugs; and RNA interference, or gene silencing technologies, that can attack a disease closer to its root cause.
“Going forward, the idea is to find the next RNAi,” says Daphne Zohar, managing partner of PureTech and a board member of Enlight (as well as an Xconomist), who credits Merck senior vice president Mervyn Turner with really embracing the idea and in effect sponsoring the collaboration. “The idea is provide technologies that bridge across all the stages of drug discovery, development, and patient care, therefore reducing failure rate of drugs and increasing the probability that innovative new medicine can reach patients in a more capital-efficient way—so that it actually eventually affects the cost of the medicines.”
To that end, Enlight will specifically look at ways to better connect animal testing, human clinical trials, and real-world medical practice. Programs have already started in molecular imaging that can predict how humans respond to drugs, better formulations of biotechnology medicines and new drug delivery techniques, the company said.
One reason the drugmakers agreed to team up? Because venture capitalists aren’t bankrolling as many breakthrough technologies that drugmakers can benefit from as they once did. The shift to investment in drug candidates in late stages of development means that “important technologies that could be of great strategic impact to the pharmaceutical industry are not being commercialized,” Enlight said in its statement.
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