Biopharma giants Amgen ($AMGN), Sanofi ($SNY) and Ono have joined a group of international academics to flesh out a promising but underexplored field of drug development, planning to share their discoveries with the public in hopes of galvanizing global R&D.
Joining universities in China and the U.S., the three companies have launched an initiative focused on proteins called G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs), which play a role in wide variety of processes in the body. The resulting nonprofit, dubbed the GPCR Consortium, plans to mount a precompetitive research collaboration in hopes of shining a light on the 826 known GPCRs, which are poorly understood at present but could be valuable drug targets. The idea is to map out the structures of each protein using cutting-edge imaging technology, and the group intends to publish all of its findings in the public domain.
Working alongside the three drugmakers are the iHuman Institute at ShanghaiTech University, the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica and the University of Southern California. The GPCR Consortium may recruit additional institutions to join the effort, and the group hopes to pull in as many as 5 more drug developers to reach its goal of plotting an initial 200 GPCRs, prioritizing those with applications in diabetes, cancer and mental disorders, among other conditions.
Such cross-cutting research initiatives are becoming more popular among the world's largest institutions, and the GPCR team is modeling itself on Oxford University's Structural Genomics Consortium, which unites GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), Novartis ($NVS) and 9 other drugmakers with a slew of academic experts. The Broad Institute has played host to similar arrangements, this year recruiting Merck KGaA and Pfizer ($PFE) into a precompetitive research alliance focused on lupus, while Roche ($RHHBY) and AstraZeneca ($AZN) have forged a wide-ranging pact to share discovery-stage data in the spirit of open science.
As for the GPCR Consortium, the academic founders are responsible for the majority of published data on the proteins' structures, the group said, and matching their expertise with the drug discovery know-how at Amgen, Sanofi and Ono will provide the fastest path to therapeutic development in the nascent field, consortium President Michael Hanson said.
"By working together, we can maximize the impact of our research on human health and disease while providing a means to support early-stage basic research and bring together academic and industry scientists in a productive working relationship," Hanson said in a statement.
The effort has particular resonance for Sanofi, which just opened a sizable R&D center in Shanghai that will employ 1,400 people, concurrently signing a deal with China's GPCR Institute. Like each partner in the group, Sanofi touts the broad potential of GPCR research, but the company has zeroed in on the potential diabetes applications, looking to bolster a portfolio that includes the world's top-selling insulin and a pipeline of promising treatments.
"With global diabetes sufferers expected to increase to 592 million before 2035, and the rates in Asia Pacific region set to soar, I am confident that our partnership with the GPCR Consortium will combine our strengths and insights and bring us one step closer to a breakthrough in treatment benefiting the regional and global diabetes patients," Frank Jiang, the company's head of Asia Pacific R&D, said in a statement.
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