While sanofi-aventis Group has been busy building its network of academic partnerships, its new collaboration with the University of California, San Francisco is adding some new wrinkles to the industry-academic model. The collaboration will give UCSF scientists a jump-start on the research needed to qualify for NIH grants and then give them hands-on translational experience in the pharma setting.

sanofi-aventis will fund UCSF's Program in Breakthrough Biomedical Research (PBBR), which will award 1- or 2-year grants of up to $520,000. Each year, the program expects to fund two to five projects. The pharma also will provide an additional $200,000 per year for UCSF researchers to intern at the company's facilities worldwide.

sanofi-aventis will have the first right of negotiation for resulting IP.

To win an NIH grant, researchers often must generate substantial preliminary data, but funding for this type of exploratory work is scarce. Keith Yamamoto, professor of cellular and molecular pharmacology and executive vice dean of the UCSF School of Medicine, sees a role for industry in solving the chicken-egg problem of how to fund the preliminary work needed to get an NIH grant.

With a PBBR grant, "researchers can first get data and get [NIH] grants later," added Remi Brouard, VP of external innovation, prospective and strategic initiatives at sanofi-aventis.

Unlike most industry-academic partnerships that focus on a particular disease area or technology, the PBBR deal is agnostic to therapeutic area. A joint committee will choose which projects to fund. Thereafter, the academic researchers will work independently but will have access to sanofi-aventis' facilities and materials.

"sanofi-aventis is saying that they want to support the very earliest stages of discovery-not just research targeted to the specific area the company works in," said Yamamoto, who brokered the deal on the UCSF side.

"The only communication that the company is permitted to have with the investigators is to let them know that the company has relevant resources like animals and chemical libraries," he added. "They're not allowed to sit down with the investigators to change the experiments."

"At the end of the grant, there is an opportunity for students and postdocs to come over and work with sanofi-aventis" to follow up on the translational applications of their academic research, said Brouard.

This internship will give UCSF researchers hands-on experience in pharma, which "is often difficult for students and postdocs to enter" directly from academia, he added.

Last year, sanofi-aventis signed a trio of more conventional grant-based translational research agreements with Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Scripps Health. Unlike the UCSF deal, those partnerships do not provide for internships at sanofi-aventis, said Brouard.

The big picture

UCSF's pharma alliances have proliferated in recent years as Pfizer Inc., Merck & Co. Inc., Bayer AG and Abbott Laboratories have established physical outposts at or near the university's Mission Bay campus (see "Recent University of California, San Francisco pharma deals").

Indeed, these alliances have prompted the university to evolve its approach toward business development. Teri Melese, associate adjunct professor of medicine and director of research technologies and alliances at UCSF, said part of her job is to help researchers navigate the menu of potential opportunities with industry partners to find the best fit.

Previously, researchers struck ad hoc collaborations or attempted to advance their discoveries on their own. "When I came to UCSF in 2001, faculty were doing all of their own business development, and that went well for some and was difficult and disappointing for others," she said.

For pharmas, research agreements are a way to get early access to IP and collaborators, a potential end run around the traditional model of acquiring VC-funded startups.

Yamamoto thinks pharmaceutical companies are picking up the translational ball dropped by VCs.

"There's no shortage of ideas but there hasn't been as much VC funding of late," said Yamamoto. "We've gone through a pretty conservative period in which VCs have been looking only at ideas that are fairly far along."

Pharma-sponsored projects "should allow work to move briskly through the valley of death," which is the early stage space in which investors are reluctant to put money to work, said Yamamoto.

Osherovich, L. SciBX 4(4); doi:10.1038/scibx.2011.92
Published online Jan. 27, 2011


      Abbott Laboratories (NYSE:ABT), Abbott Park, Ill.

      Bayer AG (Xetra:BAY), Leverkusen, Germany

      Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

      Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass.

      Merck & Co. Inc. (NYSE:MRK), Whitehouse Station, N.J.

      Pfizer Inc. (NYSE:PFE), New York, N.Y.

      sanofi-aventis Group (Euronext:SAN; NYSE:SNY), Paris, France

      Scripps Health, San Diego, Calif.

      University of California, San Francisco, Calif.