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By Charlie Fehl

Charlie Fehl“Industry or academia?” The binary nature of the most commonly-asked question among chemistry Ph.D. students suggests a looming choice between two essential sectors driving the pharmaceutical sciences. However, the lines drawn amongst these camps are becoming increasingly blurred. Partnerships between pharma and academic groups are not new, but they are on the rise in the U.S. and Europe.

As well they should be. Industrial and academic research groups have a lot to share, especially toward developing new therapeutics. Industry worries about the steadily growing rates of phase 2 attrition. Conversely, many academics in the pharmaceutical sciences have made career goals of honing basic research findings into translational therapies.

This point was superbly made at a workshop I attended last month, subtitled Researcher Mobility in Drug Discovery. Presented by the Royal Society of Chemistry’s (RSC’s) Drug Discovery Pathways Group, approximately 40 academic, clinical, and industrial scientists focused on the divide between industry and academia and what to do about it. The RSC is actively seeking greater inter-sector mobility, which the organizer, David Fox, sees as essential: “Success is reliant on effective collaborations across the industry-academia interface as well as cross-discipline. This requires a high level of mobility amongst researchers so that they are open to the trust and understanding that is essential in collaborative science,” said Fox.

No time was wasted at the meeting. Those who came expected to hear inspiring talks about partnership-driven discovery campaigns were themselves tasked with identifying challenges for inter-sector overlap. On the academic side, the difficulty and irreproducibility of academic biomedicine can hinder rapid adoption in industry. Conversely, convoluted networks within companies make it difficult to find the right people to talk to. Finally, even thinking about licensing intellectual property between universities and pharma caused numerous attendees to throw up their hands.

Fortunately, the U.K. is taking these issues seriously. New funding opportunities foster overlap between sectors for both individuals and research programs. These seek to co-localize researchers, raising common problems and solutions.

Communication was also a major focus. The most remarkable aspect of the workshop was a highly-realistic drug discovery challenge that faced groups of academic, clinical, and pharma participants. David Fox said: “The discovery challenge required multidisciplinary teams to pool their knowledge and insight in an area of drug discovery that, to many, was quite unfamiliar. They each presented their findings to a panel of experts who were extremely impressed with the quality of the presentations and the confidence with which the participants were able to apply newly-acquired knowledge.”

This type of workshop was an enthusiastic eye-opener toward new models for translational research. The U.K. and Europe have dedicated organizations toward enabling academic-industry partnerships. A rundown of major inter-sector collaborations reveals that many are also based in the U.S. and China. Is this a promising new tactic to drive innovation and reduce phase 2 attrition? The recent nature of these partnerships means that time will have to tell. However, the overwhelmingly positive feedback from a diverse meeting of academics, clinicians, and pharma researchers suggest that these are the steps worth taking.

Charlie Fehl is a postdoc at the University of Oxford, where he studies carbohydrate biochemistry and biocatalysis with Benjamin G. Davis. He is interested in chemical biology tool development for pharmaceutical and biomedical applications.