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Universities Tackle Drug Development

1 August 2003 (All day)
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Consortium architect. SRI's Glenn Rice recruited three California schools for PharmaStart.

Hoping to do well by doing good, three California schools are joining forces with a nonprofit to develop new therapies for often overlooked diseases. And the deal is a sweet one for the schools: the Universities of California in San Francisco and San Diego, along with Stanford University, will receive $500,000 of free advice on possible new drugs from SRI International in nearby Menlo Park. SRI, which conducts pharmaceutical research for companies, government agencies, and others, hopes it will then be hired to guide experimental drugs through preclinical testing.

The deal is the latest university plunge into the unfamiliar world of drug development. At Harvard, the Laboratory for Drug Discovery in Neurodegeneration (LDDN) has entered preliminary discussions with roughly 20 companies and a few venture capital firms, says the lab's director, Ross Stein (Science, 28 February 2003, 1303). But while LDDN focuses on the earliest stages of drug development--identifying compounds and confirming their biological activity--PharmaStart may take the process much further before signing on with a drug company.

PharmaStart's leaders say they have neither the desire nor the capacity to compete with pharmaceutical firms. The goal, instead, is to fill in gaps that companies leave open, particularly drugs for rare diseases or those common in the developing world. By drastically reducing a drug's risk of failure by guiding it to human testing, PharmaStart expects large drug companies to eye such projects more willingly than they would otherwise. To help fund development of compounds the universities identify, PharmaStart will seek funding from the state of California, philanthropic groups, and the National Institutes of Health.

Academic centers pursuing this sort of drug development "would be well advised to consider why companies aren't doing it," says Carl Peck, director of the Center for Drug Development Science at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He points to regulatory hurdles and lack of a market as possible pitfalls. That doesn't seem to have dampened interest, however: Since PharmaStart was announced this week, SRI has fielded more than a dozen calls from academic centers hoping to join the initiative, says Glenn Rice, vice president of SRI's biosciences division.

Related sites
SRI International
Laboratory for Drug Discovery in Neurodegeneration at Harvard

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