“Our philosophy is to be very open with the external world in terms of target identification and target validation. We compete in terms of molecules.”
While academic partnerships have become par for the course in pharma, GSK is going a step beyond the standard model of external alliances by bringing professors in-house with virtually unrestricted access to its activities. The initiative is the latest example of pharmas lowering their guard in order to both access cutting-edge science and foster the ecosystem’s future innovators.
It’s a necessary but worthwhile price to pay, according to Paul-Peter Tak, who created the program, dubbed Immunology Network, in 2015. Tak is Chief Immunology Officer and SVP of the R&D Pipeline at GlaxoSmithKline plc.
“Our philosophy is to be very open with the external world in terms of target identification and target validation. We compete in terms of molecules,” Tak told BioCentury.
The core of the Immunology Network involves providing academic researchers with three-year sabbaticals inside GSK’s R&D hub in Stevenage, where they are given a lab, personnel and access to the pharma’s technology, compound libraries and internal meetings and data.
Tak noted the program is “not transforming them into GSK employees. They continue to be employees of the university, and we reimburse the university.” Moreover, the researchers can take their discoveries with them when they leave.
“If they discover something within our facilities that’s completely based on their own research, then they actually own the IP. I think no other company has done it in this way,” said Tak.
Louise Modis, the Immunology Network’s scientific director, told BioCentury that the program’s IP terms boil down to the principle that “they own the biology IP that they bring and that they do, and GSK protects molecules that are going into the clinic.”
Thus far, the program has brought in seven investigators, expanded the indications of two internal programs, and founded an undisclosed newco in a white space area, which GSK is funding as a minority investor and has the option to buy.
Luke O’Neill, a program participant and a professor of inflammation research at Trinity College Dublin, gives GSK credit for creating something “brand new,” and based on the program’s success so far, thinks other companies should follow suit. “GSK was taking a risk, because nobody had done this before.”
Tak joined GSK in 2011, and is one of the two primary leaders reporting to outgoing CSO and President of R&D Patrick Vallance, who on Jan. 1 will hand the reins over to Hal Barron, currently president of R&D at longevity company Calico LLC.
Vallance is leaving the pharma at the end of March to become the U.K. government’s chief science adviser and head of the government’s Office for Science. The Immunology Network program will continue under GSK’s new leadership.
Having spent the bulk of his career as an academic researcher and physician, Tak created the Immunology Network to fill what he believed was a crucial gap in the pharma’s extensive roster of external partnerships (see “Out of the Dark”).
“There was one piece missing. That piece was actually bringing in senior academics into GSK,” said Tak, who remains affiliated with University of Amsterdam, Ghent University and University of Cambridge. “We do this of course all the time to make them GSK employees. But here we did it differently, where they continue to do their academic research in a much more ‘bluesky thinking’ way.”
John Hamilton, a professor of medicine at University of Melbourne and the first investigator recruited into program, told BioCentury the program creates a microcosm inside the company that allows for unprescribed discoveries. “There’s no pressure for people to come up with targets, because that’s not how it really should work in academia. Some of the best results will probably come out of left field.”
GSK has toyed with various structures for partnering with academia, such as its Discovery Partnerships with Academia (DPAc) program, and for incubating innovation from GSK scientists within in its Discovery Performance Units (DPUs).
Tak noted that unlike the DPAc program, which is “focused on very specific projects that could lead to a medicine,” the Immunology Network is geared to capitalize on emerging areas that are further from the clinic. They can also fall outside the purview of the DPUs.
“When you talk about business development opportunities in fields that do not fit in the DPU’s territory, then people are not interested, because they need to be focused,” he said. “These very new opportunities are very high-risk, because there’s less data. So I think the Immunology Network can complement that model with the creation of new companies.”
While Tak’s background as a rheumatologist played a role in the program’s immunological focus, he said the field’s recent successes, and relevance to a broad range of therapeutic areas such as autoimmunity, cancer and neuroinflammation, made it “a very good starting point to work in a new model.”
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