As Laurie Glimcher was preparing to take over as dean of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, SciBX caught up with her to discuss her views on research priorities for academic medical centers, the role of industry-university partnerships in promoting translational research and the potential of New York City to emerge as a biopharma hub. According to Glimcher, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to public-private partnerships, and a combination of models may be most effective.

Previously, Glimcher was a professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health and a practicing rheumatologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Her research interests span immunology, skeletal biology and neurodegenerative diseases.

At Harvard, Glimcher had multiple interactions with biopharma, including a three-year collaboration with Merck & Co. Inc. that finished late last year. She also is the longest serving director on the board of Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.

SciBX: As you take over as dean of Weill Cornell, how do you plan to boost the translational profile of the college?

Laurie Glimcher: One critical piece will be increasing the school's academic strength through a planned expansion to double research capacity so that Weill Cornell joins the ranks of the leading academic medical centers in the country. The recruitment of topflight junior and senior scientists who can attract funding and can nucleate new areas of research is key, as is the nurturing of the outstanding faculty already at Weill Cornell.

Another piece will be increasing the center's interactions with the private sector, which I think are essential for translational research. Turning basic research advances into therapies is an important mission of academic medical centers that receive public funding, and I believe this can sometimes most effectively be accomplished in partnership with biotech and pharma.

SciBX: In 2008, the Harvard Office of Technology Development and Merck signed a three-year osteoporosis deal in which Merck sponsored research in your laboratory. According to Don Nicholson, VP and head of worldwide discovery in the respiratory and immunology franchise at Merck, from the company's perspective "the collaboration went very well and is a prototype for collaborations that [Merck] plans on disclosing over the coming year."

How do you think your close ties to the biopharma industry, and in particular your previous collaboration with Merck, will inform your efforts to boost biotech and pharma interactions at Weill Cornell?

LG: My collaboration with Merck provided a great model for a productive academic-pharma interaction. The collaboration started as a result of my laboratory's serendipitous discovery that mice lacking schnurri-3 had increased adult bone mass.1 While current therapies for osteoporosis primarily target bone-resorbing osteoclasts and thus only prevent further bone loss, schnurri-3 regulates the activity of bone-building osteoblasts, providing a potentially more effective therapeutic option.

The collaboration with Merck was truly interactive, with both parties making contributions. We helped them design screening assays based on schnurri-3 to identify inhibitory small molecules. They generated genetic mutant strains of mice for us, and we worked together with them to uncover the upstream and downstream players in the schnurri-3 pathway through genomic and proteomic approaches. We were true partners, with daily and weekly discussions and monthly face-to-face meetings.

The collaboration allowed my lab to move robustly into skeletal biology, which was a new field for us. My lab is now continuing to look for regulators of osteoblast and osteoclast activity.

[Editor's note: Nicholson told SciBX that the collaboration resulted in the identification of "multiple appealing and tractable targets upstream" and downstream of schnurri-3, although he noted that these targets are not being pursued further at the company due to a strategic refocus.]

SciBX: What other innovative models do you see for academia-biopharma interactions?

LG: One promising approach is getting compounds that have passed Phase I, but not gone on to FDA approval because of failed efficacy, into the hands of academic researchers. Establishing partnerships for making compounds from discontinued clinical programs available to researchers at selected academic institutions for testing in other assay systems for diseases other than the original target is an excellent strategy.

These are compounds that have proven to be safe, even if they were not effective in the initial indication in which they were tested. Diseases are not isolated entities; for instance, diabetes increases the risk of cancer and obesity is linked to inflammation. Thus, there is a lot of potential in testing these clinical compounds in the wide variety of disease models that are available in academic labs.

SciBX: In the case of Weill Cornell, do you think that industry collaborations with individual researchers or broader, more institution-oriented ones will be most effective?

LG: I am really open to anything that works. I don't have any preconceived notions about how public-private partnerships have to be structured, as long as they are conducted in a way that is fully transparent.

SciBX: Going back to the other piece of the translational puzzle, are there disease areas that you think should be a high priority for academic medical centers and that you intend to focus on as you expand basic research at Weill Cornell?

LG: One area would be neurodegenerative diseases, whose enormous costs will take down our healthcare system if we cannot come up with viable therapeutics. Pharmas are proceeding cautiously and in some cases rethinking their approach. As a result, there is a need and opportunity for academic medical centers to contribute novel mechanistic insights and early therapeutic leads. Weill Cornell already has established the new Helen & Robert Appel Institute for Alzheimer's Research, which is being led by Dr. Steven Paul, originally from [Eli Lilly and Co.], and I want to continue to make new hires in this area.

Cancer is another area where there is a clear unmet medical need and where it is important for academic medical centers, including Weill Cornell, to have a strong presence. One exciting area where academic medical centers are well positioned is making personalized medicine a reality through state-of-the-art genomic approaches. Academic medical centers are also the engines of discovery in identifying fruitful new targets for further exploration.

Finally, metabolic diseases, within which I am including diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, dyslipidemias and osteoporosis, are a huge societal problem. Metabolic diseases have also been challenging for pharma, and I believe important basic and translational advances can be made at an academic medical center, such as discovering novel signaling pathways that modulate genetic factors in these diseases.

SciBX: How strongly do you think New York City is positioned to become the next biopharma hub?

LG: Very strongly. I believe that New York City has the potential to be a major player in this arena, and this is something that I am very excited about.

Of course, we at Weill Cornell are enormously excited at the recent announcement that our parent university in Ithaca has been chosen as the winner of the New York Tech Campus initiative put forward by Mayor Bloomberg. Establishing a new high-tech graduate school in science, engineering and computational biology on Roosevelt Island with a strong entrepreneurial bent will be transformative for New York City.

SciBX: Weill Cornell, The Rockefeller University and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center have an established tri-institutional alliance, and over the last three years faculty at these three institutions have collectively founded 14 biotech companies in the biopharma space, over half of which are based in New York City (see "Putting a spin (out) on New York City medical centers"). How do you see these three institutions playing a role in promoting biopharma in New York City?

LG: One important foundation for building a biopharma presence in New York City will be increasing the interactions of the academic biomedical community. Weill Cornell, Rockefeller and Memorial Sloan-Kettering in fact are located literally down the street from each other, closer even than some of the buildings and affiliated hospitals at Harvard Medical School. With Marc Tessier-Lavigne [president of Rockefeller University] and Craig Thompson [president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering], we now have new leadership at all three of these institutions, and I am committed to strengthening the tri-institutional program.

SciBX: Thank you very much for your time.

Kotz, J. SciBX 5(2); doi:10.1038/scibx.2012.31
Published online Jan. 12, 2012

REFERENCES

1.   Jones, D.C. et al. Science 312, 1223-1227 (2006)

COMPANIES AND INSTITUTIONS MENTIONED

         Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, Mass.

         Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. (NYSE:BMY), New York, N.Y.

         Eli Lilly and Co. (NYSE:LLY), Indianapolis, Ind.

         Harvard Medical School, Boston, Mass.

         Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Mass.

         Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, N.Y.

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

         The Rockefeller University, New York, N.Y.

         Weill Cornell Medical College, New York, N.Y.