Glaxo competition seeks new sources of drug discovery

GlaxoSmithKline scientists in Upper Providence use robots and other technology to see what samples in the company's library of compounds might be used in new medicines. Contest winners will use their compounds or molecular mechanisms in a similar manner.
GlaxoSmithKline scientists in Upper Providence use robots and other technology to see what samples in the company's library of compounds might be used in new medicines. Contest winners will use their compounds or molecular mechanisms in a similar manner. (ALAN BRIAN NILSEN / GlaxoSmithKline)
Posted: November 13, 2013

Simon Cowell was not involved in GlaxoSmithKline P.L.C.'s inaugural "Discovery Fast Track" competition pitting academic drug hunters against one another in a contest that was something of a talent show.

There were no silly or sappy or snarky celebrities, at least of the TV-show kind. But there were Albert Einstein bobblehead dolls.

Glaxo is searching for better ways to discover and develop drugs so its pipeline produces more effective and profitable medicine. The London company ran this contest, and will search for drug candidates through its facility in Upper Providence, Montgomery County.

The eight winners announced last week, including researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania State University, beat out 134 other applicants from a field that works for 70 universities, clinics, and hospitals. The wannabe drug-discovery heroes appeared before a panel of Glaxo scientists to strut their molecular stuff. Instead of fancy costumes and tales of epic struggle, they used PowerPoint to show how they hope to battle bacteria and more.

"It's probably a reasonable analogy, as much as equating it with America's Got Talent is a bit painful," chuckled Rahul Kohli, an M.D. and Ph.D. at Penn Medicine who was one of the eight winners. He is researching ways to design antibiotics to overcome clinical resistance.

Sarah Ades, a Penn State researcher, also had a winning idea related to fighting bacteria, but she does not expect a recording contract to come out of it.

"Not the way I sing," she said by phone from State College on Wednesday. She added, more seriously "It would be incredibly gratifying if my work ended up being a new substance that helps people. The money would be icing."

Corporations, academic institutions, and their researchers have worked together for decades. But drugmakers, including Glaxo, are under greater pressure from investors to produce profits and from insurers and patients to make cheaper medicine.

To satisfy those conflicting demands, companies have laid off workers and narrowed their research focus, but they have also reexamined old ways of operating, striving for better results with greater efficiency.

Pearl Huang, global head of Glaxo's Discovery Partnerships with Academia, gave the Einstein bobbleheads to competitors and judges. She opened those sessions with the time-honored quote attributed to Einstein: "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

Kohli and Ades said the contest was very different from a normal search for funding through grants or licensing.

Kohli said industry-academic collaboration often results from knowing someone with a common interest. "By doing it in reverse, academia can go to them and let them think about the best opportunities," Kohli said. Ades said applying for National Institutes of Health funding was done by submitting a written proposal that was then reviewed by a committee, without the presentation to 15 Glaxo scientists that was part of the contest.

And the research involved is so early in the process, no money is exchanged now. Using robots and other computer-assisted screening processes available at Glaxo's facility, the researchers get to see how their compound or process interacts with the 1.8 million compounds in Glaxo's library. If a drug candidate emerges from that, a contract would be negotiated between Glaxo and the university. Researchers and their departments usually get a slice of the school's share.

Huang said Glaxo was looking for ideas that were "ripe and ready," for the next step. Applications were filed online and Glaxo judges reviewed them without knowing names or affiliations, before the finalists were brought to the facility to make their personal pitch.

"There was enormous curiosity within GSK, and the engagement with the scientists was one of the most positive things," Huang said. "The academics were very brave."


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