Eli Lilly has launched the first two programmes in a global innovation initiative that aims to leverage mutually beneficial collaborations between the company and academia towards discovering and developing new medicines in areas of particular unmet need.
The Lilly Research Awards Program, which supports pre-competitive projects in categories such as neuroscience and diabetes, and the Lilly Innovation Fellowship Awards, which will foster post-doctoral career development in pharmaceuticals, set in motion the Innovation Starts Here initiative unveiled this week at the European Commission in Brussels.
There will be further announcements on the Innovation Starts Here initiative throughout this year and beyond.
As Jan Lundberg, executive vice president, science and technology, and president, Lilly Research Laboratories, explained, it addresses the need for a “flexible, rapid system for our scientists to tap in where the breaking science occurs”, while complementing the company’s investment in projects such as the EU’s Innovative Medicines Initiative and Lilly’s Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience in the UK.
“We want to continue our strong tradition [of academic collaboration] and connect to the external academic environment for the mutual benefit of testing or getting new ideas for the next generation of medicines,” Lundberg told PharmaTimes.
This tradition goes right back to Lilly’s collaboration with the University of Toronto during the 1920s in commercialising a pancreatic extract (isletin, later insulin) for type 1 diabetes, he noted.
The new initiative is in line with Lilly’s concept of a Fully Integrated Pharmaceutical Network, which encompasses collaborations with academics, biotechs, contract research organisations, public-private partnerships and venture capital funds.
These tie-ups are seen as an innovative process in themselves, one that can maintain the momentum of discovery and development in the face of an escalating disease burden.
“Pharmaceutical R&D has to continue, even in times of economic difficulties,” Lundberg commented.“We need to have a sustainable capability for the unmet medical needs of the future, because they will not go away. The ageing population is increasing and pharmaceuticals could be part of the solution for these healthcare problems, maintaining patients’ quality of life for longer and getting people back to work.”
Politicians should be prioritising pharmaceuticals as high-end technology in their knowledge economies and recognising the particular challenges they pose to innovation, Lundberg insisted. “It is much easier to create mobile phones or cars than safe and effective pharmaceuticals.”
Lilly will make an initial investment of US$10 million a year for an undetermined period in the Research Awards Program, which involves bringing together a diverse group of scientists worldwide to collaborate with Lilly scientists in therapeutic areas where the company has existing expertise, including neuroscience, cancer, diabetes, immune system disorders and other conditions.
The collaborations will be “truly two-way, providing a pre-competitive environment in which scientists in academia gain invaluable access to tools to conduct basic research, and in turn, Lilly scientists receive critical information to help inform the future of drug discovery and development”, the company stated.
It expects to be supporting around 30 active projects a year through the programme by 2014. These might include developing new assays, validating disease targets or biomarkers, and improving preclinical research models.Among the collaborative research projects selected for funding in 2011 under the Lilly Research Awards Program are:
• Department of Neurobiology, University Hospital Copenhagen, Denmark: a two-year programme exploring the potential expression and function of novel receptor variants in the brain to generate more robust findings about their roles in cognition, particularly as they relate to schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.
• Institute of Neuroscience, Alicante, Spain: a two-year programme to advance understanding of the neurobiology of schizophrenia.
• Indiana University School of Medicine, Indianapolis, US: a two-year programme to study the roles played by distinct types of signals associated with chronic pain disorders.
Lilly has created its Innovation Fellowship Awards Program to “broaden post-doctoral scientists’ training experiences and better prepare them for a broad range of careers, including in the pharmaceutical industry”.
The awards establish a pre-competitive academic-industry training partnership, whereby a post-doctoral fellow and academic mentor are paired with a Lilly scientist, providing the industry resources to move forward post-doctoral scientists’ research proposals.
For 2012, the Lilly Fellowship Award Program will be on an invitation-only basis, available to applicants at academic research centres in the US and the UK. Part of the rationale, Lundberg explained, is to give Lilly scientists a “very rapid and flexible tool” to interact with leading university groups.
But is also about sending out a message to tomorrow’s researchers that “the pharma industry is worth betting on and there will be a continuing need for new innovations and new medicines, while the awards should also give them the special training to understand the R&D process”.
All of this, Lundberg stressed, has to contribute to a new paradigm of product value that delivers “not only shots on goal” but “timely value medicines to patients – it’s almost like a ‘valueceutical’, because we really need to show enough differentiation and value to satisfy regulators, payers, providers and, in the end, patients”.