The Burnham Institute for Medical Research just recruited a big name guy from the pharmaceutical industry. His job is to move basic discoveries along the treacherous next few steps to make them into a pill in a bottle that helps patients.
It’s important work, but if you don’t know him, don’t even bother trying to gather some background on him from Google or Bing.
Why? His name is Michael Jackson (Michael R. Jackson to be a little more precise). With a name like that, he could cure Alzheimer’s someday and he’ll still be anonymous compared with the now-deceased King of Pop.
“It will be tough to ever compete with his Google hits,” says Burnham’s Jackson, with a laugh.
Like most academic research centers, the San Diego-based Burnham measures its impact on the world by success at winning competitive peer-reviewed grants, getting discoveries published in top scientific journals, and watching other scientists cite the Burnham’s research as our scientific understanding of biology advances. But that can also make for a lot of dusty papers sitting on shelves that never end up really getting applied in a way that helps patients. Burnham CEO John Reed (who is also a San Diego Xconomist) told me last month the institute is pushing to make sure it does more to translate basic research into something a little more applied. Once the idea has cleared some more scientific hurdles, it can then spin out into a new company, or get handed off through a licensing agreement to a commercial partner who carries out the long, difficult journey of drug development.
That’s why the Burnham recruited Jackson, 49, as its first-ever vice president for drug discovery and development. When I spoke to Reed a few weeks ago, he said he thought Burnham was the only academic research center with a position like this, which is usually found at Big Pharma companies like Johnson & Johnson—where Jackson used to work. (Burnham also recruited an experienced biotech entrepreneur, Paul Laikind, to be its new chief business officer to help cut deals with biotech and pharma companies.)
This struck me as one of those interesting personnel moves that might say something meaningful about both the state of academic research and of the pharmaceutical industry. The National Institutes of Health have been pushing researchers for years to get more serious about something called “translational” research, which is sometimes defined as taking research “from lab bench to bedside.” Meanwhile, big pharmaceutical and biotech companies have been cutting back on their research budgets, leaving many of the advances in translational research with no way to move forward to commercialization. This is an example of biotech’s fabled “Valley of Death,” where lots of good ideas fall through the cracks because they are still considered too risky to justify significant investment from profit-driven companies. Even among drugs considered promising enough to enter clinical trials, the industry rule of thumb is that only one out of 10 will ever make it all the way to FDA approval as a new drug. So if Burnham doesn’t carry forward its discoveries a little further along to make them less risky, the reasoning goes, who will?
“It’s a sign of the times,” Jackson says. “The Big Pharma companies are to an extent, backing away from certain aspects of drug discovery. They are looking to other places for it. The world is changing.”
Given that backdrop, Jackson joined the Burnham last month after 15 years climbing the ladder at J&J, where he last served as senior vice president of drug discovery. He started that company’s La Jolla research site, which generated a number of compounds for animal testing, many of which are progressing through clinical trials.
I asked Jackson why he left Big Pharma, because even though the Burnham 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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