Burnham Recruits Michael Jackson (No Relation) To Create New Drugs

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wins a lot of NIH grants, it only has a $154 million annual operating budget, and a scientific staff of 642—not exactly the kind of resources you see at a major pharma operation. He pointed out that Burnham has state-of-the-art tools as part of a $98 million NIH grant it won last year to establish the Conrad Prebys Center for Chemical Genomics. There was support from the Burnham’s leadership for his work, and there’s a collaborative spirit at the academic institute, he says.

“It’s less about individuals trying to do science than it is about people working together to achieve something bigger,” Jackson says. “If somebody around here wants a [chemical] reagent, everybody gets an e-mail, and somebody helps them out. It’s routine, it happens all the time.”

I wondered if he’s encountered any sort of culture clash, or whether the academic scientists really want to accept an “industry” guy in their ranks. Jackson really tried to stress that his job of creating chemical compounds that might interact with, say, a certain protein target of interest at the Burnham isn’t entirely an applied pursuit. By making that molecule, and testing it against the target, you may learn something new about the underlying biology of the target, so it’s all part of a feedback loop, Jackson says. He’s definitely trying to make that point, just in case any of his new colleagues subscribe to ideas that industry is the place for scientists who do more directed, and less exploratory, work.

“We see our work as enabling research,” Jackson says.

So if drug development can be thought of like a football field, in which an academic researcher traditionally takes an idea to, say, the 20-yard line and industry picks up the ball for the rest of the way to the goal line, how much further does Burnham want to carry the ball downfield?

It’s hard to answer that in a specific way, Jackson says. But he did say Burnham will be getting drugs primed for clinical trials, without doing the clinical trials itself. That’s still the domain of biotech and pharma.

Whether this new environment for drug discovery is more productive than Jackson’s former employer is a question that can’t be answered for another decade or so, he says. Yet Jackson gives off a sense that he’s enjoying some of the freedom of the academic workplace.

One of the constraints of Big Pharma, Jackson says, is the top-down control that requires scientists to focus on discovering drugs for certain diseases, usually in big markets like Alzheimer’s, even if the research indicates a promising path for new discoveries leads elsewhere. That flexibility to follow the science where it leads, and to make drugs based on those discoveries, is part of what brought him over to academia again.

“Drug discovery is all about imagining the power of possibilities,” Jackson says. “Hope is a big part of it,” Jackson says. He adds: “I want to create first-in-class, true breakthrough drugs. It’s right in the center of the mission of the Burnham. I’m not that interested in me-toos.”

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