A collaborative agreement with the University of Cambridge is the first manifestation of an ‘Academic Incubator’ concept whereby GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) will team up with scientists in academia to optimise the early clinical development of GSK compounds through a shared risk/reward model.

According to Patrick Vallence, the UK pharma giant’s senior vice president, drug discovery, the arrangement “puts academia/industry relationships on a new footing and allows academics, who are leaders in their fields, the opportunity to become directly involved in developing medicines for patients and to have the freedom to take the programme in exciting new directions”.

Under the maiden agreement, the University of Cambridge will dedicate a team of academic experts in neuroscience and metabolic disorders to developing a novel centrally acting agent with therapeutic potential in obesity and addictive disorders. The university will also bear some of the financial risk of the project, for which it will be compensated if the programme is successful. No other financial details were disclosed.

GSK will provide operational support, access to its in-house clinical research and imaging facilities, and background preclinical data on the compound under investigation. “Importantly, the agreement also allows the academic scientists freedom to publish results arising from their work on incubator projects,” the company noted.

The basic principle of the Academic Incubator concept is that leading clinicians and scientists at carefully selected academic institutions worldwide will take direct responsibility for the design of experimental studies to investigate the efficacy and safety of novel drugs originating from GSK or from academia, the company explained.

“They will be charged with tackling the complex challenges that lie between recognising the therapeutic potential of a new compound and delivering a medicine of value to patients and payers,” it commented. “How they do this will be up to the academic scientists to decide but will likely include new approaches to patient selection, study design and commercial strategy.”

The academic teams “will be expected to challenge industry norms and set a unique path for preclinical and early clinical development activities which will deliver on the promise of an asset at the earliest stage”, GSK added.

Like many of its Big Pharma rivals, the company is under pressure to improve R&D productivity, streamline its development process and produce a new generation of drugs that can offset the wave of major patent expiries threatening the industry over the next several years.

The agreement with Cambridge University is “fully aligned” with one of the key recommendations of the Cooksey review of UK health research funding, which was to look at alternative drug development models, such as public-private partnerships, to maximise collaboration between industry and academia in the development of effective new medicines, GSK pointed out.