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a foundation of basic studies whose value when the discoveries were made wasn’t always understood. Who at the time would have ascribed any practical utility to Oswald Avery’s investigations that revealed that DNA was the genetic material? Think about some of the most important basic science discoveries over the past century. What would have happened if Watson and Crick had their attention diverted away from solving the structure of the double helix to work on a pharma problem brought to the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge by Glaxo?
I’m not saying that these pharma-academic department alliances are necessarily a bad thing. However, these deals raise a number of questions about the degree of control the companies have over the research and, more specifically, over the investigators themselves. Here is a brief list of some of the issues that I haven’t seen discussed, but which are likely to concern the academic investigators involved:
—Who decides on how the money gets spent?
—Who has the authority to determine which investigators within a department or organization get some of the pharma money, and which ones don’t?
—Will the company play a role in specifying which projects an investigator works on?
—Can the pharma partner specifically block investigators from collaborating with other academic investigators or another (possibly competing) drug company?
—Will work done by an investigator within the alliance affect their ability to get tenure?
—Does the pharma partner get to review (and approve) publications and presentations by the researchers before they are submitted?
—Will the filing of patents result in any delays in reporting the work?
One other important matter that must be clarified at the outset of these alliances involves identifying the source of funding of specific projects. For example, if a researcher within one of these academic departments is working on a grant funded by the NIH, then the Bayh-Dole Act would likely cover any inventions that might emerge from their lab. Congress created this Act in 1980 in order to facilitate the commercialization of academic discoveries from the nation’s research labs. One could easily envision a situation where an investigator’s NIH grant money gets switched to funding supplied by the pharmaceutical company. Patents and commercial products that derived from this work might then belong solely to the pharma company, with the university unable to make a claim for a share of the profits. This might be an acceptable trade off for either the university or the academic department in exchange for the funds that the pharma partner is providing. Alliance agreements with academia are almost certainly constructed to favor the pharmaceutical firms if a moneymaking idea or product springs forth from the work. However, without knowing exactly how these alliances are structured, it is impossible to determine just what, if anything, the academic side is giving up.
Will these alliances be successful in re-energizing Big Pharma? It’s simply too early to tell, and the missing details make these arrangements difficult to judge from several different perspectives. What I can tell you is that these alliances need to be carefully managed. I teach scientists and pharma/biotech companies how to facilitate successful collaborations and alliances, and I’ve witnessed numerous problems that can arise from these arrangements. Ignoring your partner’s concerns, or failing to act on them in a timely manner, is a recipe for failure. Once your collaboration or alliance derails, it is extremely difficult to get it back on track and moving forward. The correct mindset probably involves thinking of these associations as being akin to a marriage. Each is filled with give and take, with negotiations, with misunderstandings, and even occasionally bad intentions. Whether they will be productive in the long term depends on the commitment of the participants to work through the various problems that will inevitably crop up.
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