GSK, AstraZeneca and J&J back $57M effort to springboard university drug research

Ian Tomlinson

Three of the U.K.'s leading universities are joining hands with three of the world's biggest pharma giants to create a new translational medicine group aimed at spinning out new therapies into the global pipeline.

Imperial College London, University College London and the University of Cambridge--all recognized for top academic research organizations with a long track record in drug discovery--are joining hands with GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), AstraZeneca ($AZN) and the J&J Innovation group ($JNJ) on the creative new fund. The tech transfer units at the universities are each chipping in £3.3 million while the Big Pharmas are adding £10 million each.

That money is being poured into the Apollo Therapeutics Fund, which is recruiting a group of ex-industry scientists who will be charged with shepherding the best new preclinical programs that can be shoved into development. The big three pharmas get the pick of the litter at the university consortium through an internal bid process, while the rest can be spun out in an outlicensing deal.

Ian Tomlinson, a former senior research exec at GSK and Domantis, will chair the new pipeline project's steering committee, which aims to strike deals that will divvy up royalties and milestones on everything from small molecules, peptides, proteins, antibodies and cell and gene therapies.

While not nearly as big as many of the new private venture funds being rolled out in the U.S. and Europe, this is a much more carefully focused effort that could help redefine the way that the industry accesses early-stage science for their pipelines. Several venture groups in the U.S.--like Flagship, Polaris and Third Rock--have specialized in picking the top academic efforts and creating new biotechs around the research. And Big Pharma groups have been going direct as well at times. J&J Innovation has been setting up new academic ties around the globe, while GSK has partnered on its own outreach efforts and AstraZeneca is relocating its HQ to Cambridge.

This new joint venture in the U.K. could help universities orchestrate their tech-transfer programs and pump up their returns, while giving the Big Three a first shot at the most promising new treatments.

The move also underscores a debate inside the pharma world over the most efficient way to go about drug research and development. Some analysts question how efficient a large operation can be in accessing preclinical work and advancing it into the clinic. For them, it makes more sense to wait until after a biotech has taken a therapy through the proof-of-concept stage, where they can pay a premium for products that can be advanced into late-stage programs with relatively near-term readouts. GSK, Astra and J&J, though, are betting heavily that their early stage work will pay off later by being the first to market with the most innovative therapies.

"This is the first time that three global pharmaceutical companies and the TTOs of three of the world's top ten universities have come together to form a joint enterprise of this nature, making the Apollo Therapeutics Fund a truly innovative venture," noted Tomlinson in a statement.

- here's the release