J&J's R&D group crafts 3 new platforms to guide global drug development

Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ) has crafted three new research platforms designed to help its teams of investigators focus on a set of key strategic initiatives that will help guide their multibillion-dollar drug development program to advance new medicines that can get ahead of a disease and prevent it from taking a toll. And J&J--which is adding an institute for microbiome R&D along with a pioneering effort to prevent Type 1 diabetes in the ramp-up--plans to use their central position in the research structure to help coordinate in-house work with their growing cast of development partners around the world.

Raritan, NJ-based Janssen Research & Development isn't changing its focus on 5 core disease fields or its overall R&D strategy. But the pharma giant has been rethinking how to best go about coordinating and improving a broad pipeline effort, now one of the top three pharma operations worldwide which consumes about $8 billion in costs every year. To that end, these new platforms will concentrate on disease prevention, disease interception and the fast-growing microbiome field.

Janssen R&D's William Hait

This is all about next-gen drug development, says William Hait, the global head of Janssen Research & Development. By "identifying and correctly interpreting the earliest signals of disease susceptibility, preventing or intercepting disease before it even begins, and using the latest scientific insights from promising, emerging fields like the microbiome," J&J can transform medicine, he said.

"The three programs are part of an overall strategy, which we refer to as 'Janssen 2020,'" Hait tells FierceBiotech in an email. "The third pillar of Janssen 2020 is 'Explore New Spaces,' of which disease interception is part.The 'vision thing' is that if we are successful with this approach, in the future there will not be patients as we think of people with disease today. Rather, we will have prevented, blocked/intercepted a process that if left unchecked would have led to illness. The interest in microbiome also stems from a desire to understand the factors that maintain good health."

J&J has been a prolific dealmaker around the globe. R&D chief Paul Stoffels set up four key deal hubs in London, Boston, San Francisco and Shanghai to coordinate their partnering work worldwide. These new platforms are a way for the company to think coherently about how all its research work fits together, providing a clear set of guiding principles while advancing the science needed to make sure that the drugs J&J is developing today are a clear advance for patients--capable of winning reimbursement--if and when they become approved therapeutics down the road.

In disease prevention, J&J plans to concentrate its work on some huge targets: Alzheimer's, heart disease, cancer and autoimmune diseases, among others. The goal will be to spawn new therapies aimed broadly at improving longevity, and they'll be absorbing the expertise of the Crucell Vaccine Institute, which was created following the 2011 Crucell buyout.

The first goal for the company's disease interception platform will be to develop new diagnostics and therapeutics that can identify Type 1 diabetes early and then stop it from progressing. Janssen will be working with the JDRF on this program.

"Disease interception (which is described as an incubator-like effort) will intervene earlier than today's clinically accepted point of diagnosis and seek solutions that stop, reverse or inhibit progression to that disease, for instance type 1 diabetes or various forms of cancer," explained Benjamin Wiegand, global head, Disease Interception Accelerator. "Through this novel approach, we aim to predict and preempt an individual from progressing to disease--before they get sick." Genetics, environmental factors and phenotypic alterations will be studied to help guide research work.

J&J's new microbiome institute will help coordinate collaborations in one of the hottest fields in biotech, which is centered on the role teeming populations of bacteria play in disease. "Through cutting-edge research and a global collaborative network, we aim to translate the science of the microbiome into therapeutic targets and diagnostic capabilities that have the potential to transform human health," noted Dirk Gevers, who is heading it up. The institute, the company adds, aims at fostering external collaborations through its anchor research centers in Cambridge, MA, and in Beerse, Belgium.

"The Prevention Center (with about 120 staffers) derives from the former Crucell Vaccine Institute in Leiden and does not require relocating," adds Hait. "Some reorganization occurred to move vaccines for communicable diseases into our Infectious Diseases and Vaccines Therapeutic Area. We envision that the Janssen Human Microbiome Institute will have two locations; a major laboratory effort in Belgium on our Beerse Campus and a second location in Cambridge Massachusetts near our Innovation Center. These new initiatives will be creating new partnerships in the relevant scientific areas."

Big pharma has a mixed record in R&D. The top 10 companies spend about $70 billion a year trying to develop new products. And several of them have seen efforts to clarify and revive drug R&D flop badly. GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) is now reorganizing R&D for the second time in 6 years. Sanofi ($SNY) is downsizing cancer R&D this week to reflect the failure of one of Chris Viehbacher's key initiatives. And big companies like Eli Lilly ($LLY) floundered for years, with some critics still wondering if the company can get its act together and produce game-changing drugs. J&J has a long way to go before it can determine how this new strategy works. But it is trying something new.

- here's the release
- see the release on the Type 1 diabetes program