Yesterday at the New York Biotechnology Association’s 21st annual meeting, National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins was beamed in by videoconference to a keynote lunch at the Times Square Marriott Marquis. Collins, who was the featured speaker, apologized for his virtual appearance at the event, but he had a good excuse: Just two hours earlier he was at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., making an announcement about an ambitious new program being undertaken by the NIH and drug giants Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and Eli Lilly. The NIH said it will collaborate with the companies to make existing compounds available to outside scientists who want to find new uses for them.
The four-way partnership is being spearheaded by the NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, which was created last December with the goal of speeding up the development of new drugs, diagnostics, and medical devices. Collins told the crowd at the New York Biotechnology Association (NYBA) conference that part of the new center’s challenge was to deal with the issue of drugs failing in clinical trials after millions of dollars have been spent researching them. The translational science unit has launched a number of new programs, including a partnership with the FDA and DARPA to develop better ways of identifying drugs that may have dangerous side effects that outweigh their benefits. And it has formed this latest initiative with the drug industry to “identify drugs that can be rescued and repurposed,” Collins said.
The program is dubbed Discovering New Therapeutic Uses for Existing Molecules, and that’s exactly what it is designed to do. The idea is for scientists to take drugs that have been shelved by pharma companies because of lack of efficacy, and to examine whether they might work in different diseases. Collins said the NIH was inspired by drugs like azidothymidine (AZT), which failed in cancer, but later became an effective weapon against HIV.
About a month from now, the NIH will list the drugs that Pfizer, Lilly, and AstraZeneca want to make available through the program and it will begin taking applications from scientists, Collins said at the NYBA event. Anticipating potential legal snafus arising from intellectual-property concerns, the companies and the NIH have already devised “template agreements” to streamline the contract process, Collins said. “This is an unprecedented level of partnership,” he said.
Collins’ presentation capped off a record-setting annual conference for the NYBA, said the organization’s chairman, Peter Robinson, during the keynote lunch. More than 800 biotech CEOs, investors, and students crowded into sessions on topics such as healthcare reform, R&D advances, and FDA initiatives to encourage innovation. The conference featured a series called “Way Cool Bio-Sci-Tech,” which spotlighted advances in hepatitis C and cancer immunology. And post-doctoral students showed up en masse for a session called “The Postdoc Dilemma: An Industry Focus.” The session provided insight to students on the pros and cons of working in industry vs. academia. Robinson, who is the COO of University of Rochester Medical Center, said 100 students attended the conference.
During his keynote address, Collins acknowledged the vast challenges facing the biotech industry, and the wide gulf between scientific discoveries and usable treatments. He pointed out that researchers have identified the causes of 4,500 diseases but that there are only treatments for 250 of them. Fittingly, Collins ended his slide presentation with an image of Edvard Munch’s famous painting “The Scream,” which had sold the night before for a record-blasting $120 million at New York’s famous Sotheby’s auction house. Quoting Winston Churchill, Collins said: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
He urged the members of New York’s biotech community to keep those words in mind as they battle the challenges of limited capital, research disappointments, and regulatory challenges. “We are very much in that mindset that we have to keep going,” he said. “I think the future has never been brighter in terms of the promise of biomedical research, but we have to be smarter than ever, and we have to look for new partnerships.”