More than 20 compounds that Pfizer Inc. (PFE:US), Eli Lilly & Co. (LLY:US) and AstraZeneca Plc (AZN) failed to turn into drugs will be tested by U.S.-sponsored scientists in a $20 million program to see if they’ll work against ailments they weren’t aimed at previously.
If the compounds are effective, the time to market will be shorter and the drugmakers, who retain ownership of the compounds, will share profits with researchers. Traditionally, companies spend about $2 billion and take 14 years to develop therapies, a so-called valley-of-death commitment that’s made drugmakers move cautiously in deciding which illness to target.
The joint program, a first for the National Institutes of Health, is designed to lessen drugmakers’ risk, funded by $575 million in President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget. The agency cited the HIV treatment AZT, created from failed attempts to treat cancer, in explaining the partnership.
“We need to generate more of these success stories in a more systematic manner,” NIH director Francis Collins said during a news conference announcing the agreements..
The compounds that New York-based Pfizer, the world’s largest drugmaker, Indianapolis-based Lilly and London-based AstraZeneca will make available already have been found safe in humans. The drugmakers will give researchers access to the chemicals and related data, company officials said.
“For us, there is just benefits, in a way,” said Jan Lundberg, executive vice president for science and technology at Lilly.
Drugmakers will have to provide the compounds to researchers, which may requiring manufacturing more of the substances, Lundberg said today in an interview. The companies also face costs for maintaining patents on the compounds and for gathering and transmitting clinical data to scientists, said Don Frail, vice president for science and new opportunities at London-based AstraZeneca.
“There’s not a shelf of discontinued compounds that you can just pull one off and give to somebody,” Frail said in an interview. Clinical supplies alone, should the compounds enter human trials, may cost as much as $1 million, he said.
Collins said he is hopeful the work will lead to new treatments for diseases of the central nervous system, which have proved so difficult to attack that drug companies are dissuaded from investing in them.
Rod Mackenzie, a senior vice president at Pfizer, said neurological diseases are “one of the great health crises we face across the globe.”
“We need to do better there,” he said during the news conference.
Should the drugs prove effective against a new disease, the companies will have the option to develop them into a marketed product, the agency said. Taxpayers would get a financial benefit only if an NIH scientist is a researcher on one of the compounds. Then royalties would flow back to the U.S. agency.
“Americans are eagerly awaiting the next generation of cures and treatments to help them live longer and healthier lives,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, in a statement. “To accelerate our nation’s therapeutic development process, it is essential that we forge strong, innovative and strategic partnerships across government, academia and industry.”
The bottom-line benefit for the public is societal, Collins said. Diseases that don’t have treatments now may get one, he said.
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