Eli Lilly has joined the wave of pharmaceutical multinationals stepping up their R&D activities in Singapore, opening an expanded research facility, the Lilly Singapore Centre for Drug Discovery, in the island state’s Biopolis biomedical research complex.

Lilly announced a five-year, US$150 million expansion of its Singapore drug discovery programme in March 2007. The project, a partnership with the Singapore Economic Development board, involved expanding, renaming and relocating to the Biopolis the company’s existing Lilly Centre for Systems Biology (LSB), which started operations in November 2002.

When Lilly set up the LSB in 2001, it was the first pharmaceutical company to establish a research centre in Singapore, noted Jonathon Sedgwick, managing director and chief scientific officer of the Lilly Singapore Centre for Drug Discovery. In its earlier incarnation the Centre was primarily focused on biomarker identification in oncology, and it now drives a “substantial amount” of Lilly’s global cancer biomarker research and development, he said.

The expanded centre adds discovery research and integrated informatics to the mix. One unit, Drug Discovery Research, will focus on the identification and development of new medicines in the fields of oncology and diabetes. Research teams will work with adult stem cells and epigenetics, which involves changes in gene expression caused by environmental factors rather than any alteration of the underlying DNA sequence.

The Integrative Informatics Unit at the Lilly Singapore Centre for Drug Discovery (LSCDD) is concerned with the integration of heterogeneous datasets, algorithm development, statistical analysis, and integrated data analysis workflows. The outcomes of these processes “eventually get wrapped up into state-of-the-art software tools for global implementation and usage by scientists and clinicians across all therapy areas at Lilly”, the company noted.

According to Sedgwick, the expanded Centre is the world’s first to conduct drug discovery through the integrated approach of Discovery Research, Integrated Informatics and Bioinformatics. The initiative reflects “our strategic desire to expand our research and development activities in Asia Pacific and gain better access to regional talent”, he added.

FIPNet model

It is also an example of how Lilly has created and pursued a Fully Integrated Pharmaceutical Network (FIPNet) model.

“For many years, most pharmaceutical companies have been following an integrated model known as FIPCO (Fully Integrated Pharmaceutical Company), in which ownership of all aspects of research efforts is typical,” Sedgwick commented. By contrast, the FIPNet model “is all about focusing on networking and outsourcing as well as collaboration and risk-sharing”.

The LSCDD, especially its drug development activities, “will operate exclusively through FIPNet and partner in areas that, while essential for the drug discovery process, are not essential for Lilly to own”, he explained. “This will allow Lilly to take advantage of a flexible cost structure and help speed the medicines in our pipeline to patients.”

The FIPNet model links activities between partners, but without the requirement that materials, compounds or back-end detailed information always return to a central unit. Hubs such as LSCDD “will generate collaboration and local decision-making”, Lilly believes.

“The vision is that, ultimately, the contract research organisations, pharma and biotech firms that Lilly works with will interact directly to achieve defined milestones,” it added. An additional goal of the FIPNet model is to spread the financial risk, as well as the rewards, associated with drug discovery among these different partners.