GlaxoSmithKline picks discovery-stage winners in R&D Star Search

Pearl Huang, head of GlaxoSmithKline's Discovery Partnerships with Academia program

GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) has rounded up some promising early projects in its inaugural Discovery Fast Track competition, hand-picking academic scientists for a chance to partner up and kick-start their research into a development program.

GSK devised the contest as a sort of crowd-sourced means of accelerating its translational research operation, hoping to entice the brightest minds across North America with the promise of lending its scale and expertise to their discovery-stage programs. The 8 winning projects include novel approaches to antibiotic development, malaria, metastatic cancers, parasite-caused Leishmaniasis, male fertility regulation and iron-overload diseases.

Next, GSK will screen each target against its extensive compound library, inviting the brains behind each successful project to collaborate with its in-house teams to push things forward, and Pearl Huang, global head of GSK's Discovery Partnerships with Academia (DPAc) program, said the company's scientists are excited to get to work on some fresh ideas.

"Our hope is that we'll get full drug discovery projects out of this effort," Huang told FierceBiotech. "Just how many will depend on the natural attrition you encounter during drug discovery, but we're treating these as if they're internal projects."

In its three years of existence, DPAc has spurred 9 collaborations spanning the U.K., U.S. and Canada, matching academic partners with GSK's R&D teams to develop treatments on the drugmaker's dime.

Unsurprisingly, the program has also stirred complementary worries about respect for intellectual-property rights, as the contest and its lack of upfront contract negotiations don't quite jibe with some schools' collaboration policies. When GSK first announced the competition in May, the bosses at UCLA swiftly informed faculty that the program was incompatible with its IP-protecting bylaws, pointing to fuzzy wording that could let the drug giant pilfer proprietary work.

But skipping that initial negotiation phase is exactly what allows Discovery Fast Track to work nimbly, Huang said. Under the early agreements, both parties agree to hold off on IP claims until after the screening, waiting until they have a definite candidate before working out how to share the potential benefits.

"The other piece of it is we spend a fair amount of time on divorce terms," Huang said, and if either party chooses to terminate the early collaboration for whatever reason, GSK proposes a compromise under which academics can pick some compounds and explicate their science independently, publishing the work for others to review.

Those assurances were apparently enough for the researchers behind Discovery Fast Track's 142 entries, spanning 17 therapeutic areas and bringing together scientists from 70 universities, academic research institutions, clinics and hospitals across North America. And while it's too early to deem the contest a full-fledged success, Huang said GSK is already considering a second Discovery Fast Track with early discussions aimed at deciding which continent to target next.

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