Published online 20 May 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.499

News

Flagship drug-development initiative picks projects

European project awards pharmaceutical research funding.

drug discoveryDrug development could be improved by collaboration between academia and industry.Punchstock

A European initiative to unite industry and academia in improving the drug-development process has unveiled the first crop of projects to be funded.

On 18 May, the European Commission announced 15 projects that have won a share of €246 million (US$336 million) in funding, the first round of the €2-billion Innovative Medicine Initiative. The initiative is the first of six public–private partnerships — known as Joint Technology Initiatives — to roll out funding as part of the European Union's €50-billion Seventh Framework Programme, which runs until 2013.

Alain Vanvossel, interim executive director of the Innovative Medicine Initiative and head of the European Commission's unit on infectious diseases, says that the Joint Technology Initiatives are a new experiment in funding research. "This is the first time in Europe that industry is working together with academia on such a scale," he says. "Usually they just engage in bilateral agreements."

Roughly half of the money for the Joint Technology Initiatives comes from European Union funds, with €3.17 billion paid by member states as part of their contribution to the framework programme. Industry matches the contribution by offering researchers, lab space and equipment, and through sharing its data and materials.

The initiative is similar to the Critical Path Initiative, funded by the US Food and Drug Administration. This programme was launched in 2004 to address drops in the number of new drugs being developed and submitted for approval. In 2008, it funded 60 projects with a budget of $7 million, and its budget for this year has grown to $16 million.

Picking winners

The Innovative Medicine Initiative's winning projects, selected from 150 proposals, include research on pain, neurodegenerative disorders and monitoring the benefits and risks of medicines. The budgets for each project range from less than €5 million to more than €10 million, and are expected to last 4–5 years.

The project on pain will include research on developing better tools to test the efficacy of drugs, for example. "One of the major obstacles for the pharmaceutical industry is that the medication available to treat patients with chronic pain is not doing its job. We need more drugs to treat chronic pain," says Irene Tracey, an anaesthetic researcher at the University of Oxford, UK, who will be leading a study within the pain project.

Her study aims to develop alternatives to the animal models currently being used to test drugs, which throw up "too many false positives", she says. "Many of the drugs that look promising in the animal models fall down when they are tested in people."

Her team has already found a chemical in the human brain that is associated with chronic pain, and now hope to exploit this potential biomarker to assess the effectiveness of pain-relieving drugs.

Joining forces

Jackie Hunter, senior vice-president of science, environment and development at the UK pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline and a member of the Innovative Medicine Initiative's governing board, says that the topics being funded by the initiative are "key bottlenecks" in drug development that could not be addressed by one company or institution alone. "It makes sense for us to pool data and work together," she says.

Vanvossel says that both industry and academia initially had some reservations about the scheme, especially about how intellectual-property rights would be assigned for the results of the partnerships. Some universities, for example, were concerned that the original proposals favoured industry and did not adequately protect the knowledge they were bringing into the collaboration.

An expert group set up by the governing board to review the intellectual-property policies is expected to publish a 'clarification' on the issue by the middle of June, Vanvossel says. Individual project budgets are now being finalized, with research due to begin in September. A second funding round, with a projected budget of €150 million, is due to be announced in the autumn. 

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  • #60632

    The HBP will make fundamental contributions to neuroscience, to medicine and to future computing technology. MadelineI @weebly.com

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