Burnham Snags $50M Gift, Sparks Translation of Basic Science into New Treatments

1/26/10Follow @xconomy

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that if academics don’t reach out to do more applied work, then it won’t get done, Laikind says. That’s because Big Pharma companies have been cutting back on their basic research budgets, which has opened up the fabled “valley of death” where promising ideas are too mature to receive basic federal funding, but still too risky to receive support from profit-driven companies or venture capitalists.

Given that reality, how far does an academic institution like Burnham have to extend its resources, before a pharma or biotech company will carry the ball forward? I like to use a football analogy to explain what’s going on. In the past, academics might have carried the ball to the 10-yard line, and handed it off to a drug company who would go the remaining 90 yards to the end zone (FDA approval of a new drug). Now the academic center has to carry it to something more like the 30-yard line or so, Laikind says.

What that means is that instead of just elucidating a new target on cells for drug development, Burnham scientists, such as J&J vet Michael Jackson, will go so far as to synthesize new small-molecule compounds to hit the target, and even run screening tests to come up with an optimal small molecule drug candidate that specifically hits the target, and doesn’t appear to hit related targets and cause side effects. But Burnham will not go so far as to do the expensive and time-consuming work of clinical trials—that’s still the domain of biotech and Big Pharma, Laikind says. “We think we can meet Big Pharma partway,” he says.

This is all in the very early stages. Burnham has a staff of about 6.5 full-time equivalents working on technology transfer, doing the work of managing invention disclosures, material transfer agreements between research centers, patent filings, and business development.

The goal at the Institute will be to increase licensing revenues, partly as a way of building up a new stream of financial support, Laikind says. He didn’t provide licensing income figures, but I found that Burnham reported $943,000 in licensing revenue in fiscal 2006, according to a report by the Association of University Technology Managers. That’s a puny sum compared to the $3.9 million in licensing income that flowed that year to the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, or the eye-popping $300.7 million that went to the leading institution that year, Massachusetts General Hospital.

Most institutions don’t really want to flaunt how much money they capture from licensing income, because they don’t want donors to think they are already flush. Burnham is more likely to measure its impact in groundbreaking products that have roots in its research, basically big hits like the Novartis drug that transformed the treatment of chronic myeloid leukemia.

“If you work hard to get products to patients, then revenue will naturally be a part of it,” Laikind says.

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