International drug maker Sanofi has created a program to fund early drug discovery research at universities, and the Paris-based firm said today The University of Texas System is now on board, bringing the program’s total to seven institutions.
Many successful or promising drugs stemmed from early work at universities, including a next-generation cholesterol-lowering treatment that Sanofi hopes will soon become a blockbuster. That drug, alirocumab (Praluent), can trace its origins back to research from the UT System.
Alirocumab, and others like it also racing toward commercialization, work by blocking a protein called PCSK9, which in essence prevents liver cells from removing from the bloodstream artery-clogging bad cholesterol—low-density lipoproteins, or LDL. Early discoveries about PCSK9 were made by researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, where they developed the first theories about the benefits of blocking it.
Alirocumab is now before the FDA, which should decide in the next month whether to approve it. Sanofi (NYSE: SNY) is co-developing it with Regeneron Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: REGN), and they’re neck-and-neck with a rival drug evolocumab (Repatha) from Amgen (NASDAQ: AMGN).
The goal of the university program is to provide funding for researchers who might discover breakthroughs in their labs similar to the one that led to the new cholesterol drugs, says Paul Chew, the chief medical officer and head of global medical affairs in North America for Sanofi.
“We hope to duplicate that by identifying opportunities, run them, support them, and bring them to patients as quickly as possible,” Chew said in a telephone interview. “We’re hoping that we will be able to collaborate within these institutions to find and fund early stage research that could lead to new therapies.”
The fight against the bad form of cholesterol has produced the best selling drugs in the world such as Pfizer’s atorvastatin (Lipitor). The company has sold more than $140 billion worth since the 1990s.
Sanofi will provide $2.4 million in funding per year for three years through its Sanofi Innovation Awards program for use at The UT System and six other schools involved. Along with The UT System (which includes nine academic universities and six health institutes), the Sanofi program includes Johns Hopkins University, University of Pennsylvania, Weill Cornell Medical College, Columbia University, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Scientists working at each university can submit proposals for funding. A single representative from each institution will join a committee, which will select the proposals. Five Sanofi representatives will be on the committee, Chew says. He expects the $2.4 million to fund 20 to 25 proposals annually.
“These are seed investments; this is just to cast the first net widely,” Chew says. “If they bear fruit, or look like they might bear fruit, a lot more (funding) would go behind individual proposals.”
Chew said that Sanofi would invest more money in projects that appear promising. The researchers aren’t bound to Sanofi, however, Chew says.
“This is a convergence where we want to encourage open thinking, so it’s not an exclusive restriction to Sanofi,” he says.
There also is no restriction on the type of research that might get funded, Chew says. He has a background in the cardiovascular world, which is part of the reason for his reference to PCSK9 and Sanofi’s cholesterol drug.
Academic research also brought forth earlier iterations of cholesterol medication. Two researchers at The University of Texas Southwestern, Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein, made discoveries in the 1970s about the way human cells remove cholesterol from the bloodstream using LDL receptors. They won the Nobel Prize for their work in the 1980s.
Beyond its contributions to cholesterol, The University of Texas System has been active in engaging the private sector with its academic work, particularly in Austin, TX, where it is building the Dell Medical School at its flagship campus. The system announced two initiatives in June intended to commercialize its work in life sciences.
The first, called the Texas Health Catalyst program, intends to connect the university’s academic researchers with entrepreneurs and investors in Central Texas and nationally. The second is a program called Clinical Trials XPress, which will coordinate clinical trials at UT institutions across the state, according to Patricia Hurn, UT System’s vice chancellor for research and innovation.
That clinical trial program, which is to be set up in at Texas Medical Center in Houston, is one reason Sanofi was interested in UT System as a partner, Hurn says. But the drug maker was also intrigued by other UT System work, such as a database called Influuent that allows companies and governments to search the system’s 15,000 researchers according to their field, she says.
UT made a decision to pursue partnerships with the private sector as a way to diversify the funding for academic researchers beyond traditional grants, Hurn says.
“We have been building programs, one after another, to make what we have very attractive to industry,” Hurn says.
As for what research UT System plans to submit for funding, Hurn says the system will know more on Friday when Sanofi delivers more details about the award process Researchers from the 15 UT institutions came to Austin today, however, to meet with Sanofi officials. In particular, Hurn invited researchers who study cardiovascular and metabolic diseases—indications that Sanofi is known to target.
Chew would not reveal whether any indications would receive favor over others. Because of advancements in science, one molecular target could potentially attack several diseases, Chew says.
Chew touted the altruistic value of Sanofi’s award program; still, the drug firm with 33.8 billion euros of sales in 2014 is a business. If any potentially valuable drug candidates come forward, Sanofi can help the researchers maximize the opportunity, he says.
“We’re going to follow the science, and if the science is there, the commercial value will follow,” he says.