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Q&A: UCSF’s Jeff Bluestone on the Tricky Balancing Act Between Academia and Industry

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that this is an important element. With my appointment, and with Sue coming in, and we now have started an office for industry partnerships. There is an increasing effort to build relationships on a broader basis. Our recent Pfizer deal, the addition of Sanofi-Aventis to our breakthrough biomedical research program, and the Bayer project—these are all about platform agreements that change the way we are working with industry, and hopefully in as industry-friendly of a way as possible, while making sure we protect the academic freedoms of our faculty and students.

X: Are those the major industry relationships—Pfizer, Sanofi, and Bayer—that have been struck in the past year? Do you still have a master agreement in place with Genentech?

JB: Yes, we have a master agreement with Genentech. There’s the recent one with Bayer. We have a large Pfizer deal, which actually involves having Pfizer put scientists on the Mission Bay campus to work daily with our scientists. It’s a new way to approach partnerships. The Sanofi deal is interesting because it has two major components. One is trying to bridge the valley of death in therapeutic areas like oncology and aging and diabetes, but also, there’s a separate investment in our very fundamental biomedical research program called Program for Breakthrough Biomedical Research (PBBR), which is really trying to support out-of-the-box ideas.

There have been other partnerships developed with Merck over the past year which have also been groundbreaking, in that they promote an institution-wide effort. There are a few more in the hopper we are working on as well.

X: It seems like a trend we are seeing, not just at UCSF, but at other institutions as well. Sanford-Burnham in San Diego has done a couple recently. Do you find these Big Pharma companies, who are struggling to fill up their pipelines, struggling to innovate, really turning to academia as the source for new innovations now, as opposed to small biotechs, like they once did?

JB: Frankly, it’s going in both directions. The pharmaceutical industry has realized that the human genome and its consequence—a bunch of new drugs—is probably a faulty model. The amount of investment made internally in pharmaceutical companies to take advantage of all the data we can now create has actually left a hole. There was not necessarily a fundamental understanding of the systems, of the biology, the biochemistry, to take advantage of it. On the other hand, academia appreciates how all of that investment has really created a set of tools that will help academics really realize some of the larger challenges to doing research. We never had capital for that before. We could do experiments on our own benches, each lab could run his own little experiments, and now we realize that you need access to big tools, big machines. Together, there’s a logical and appropriate partnership.

I still believe academia is the source for novel ideas, for early understanding of biological systems, being able to bring together diverse pieces of information in an adaptive way to really think about a problem in a different way than industry is used to. Industry sees its pipeline shrinking, the number of new drug entities shrinking, and really needs to get back to basics. You can’t just generate an unlimited amount of data and expect a drug to pop out the other end.

X: Have you encountered much resistance on campus, from faculty or student groups, saying things about this going in the wrong direction, or complaining about how they get to do less creative work, or they feel they are losing publication rights? Are people arguing that the institution is selling its soul?

JB: I’ve been very sensitive to that. I’ve not gotten a significant amount of pushback, and I think that’s for several reasons. No. 1, we enter into each of these partnerships with fundamental principles—like freedom to operate, publish, educate—that have to be included. We don’t give away rights that preclude us from ever being able to do research that a partner may not want to pursue. That’s a core principle. We have to make sure we can always pursue the science.

We also try to work as much as we can in the pre-competitive space, so no one’s feeling a lot of pressure to hide stuff. And most importantly, we realize … Next Page »

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