To Speed Treatments, Non-Traditional Partnerships May Be the Future

A handshake between a scientist and a businessman.

(© maxsim/Fotolia)

Drug development becomes even more complex as time passes. Increased regulation, new scientific methods, coupling of drugs with biomarkers, and an attempt to build drugs for much more specific populations – even individuals – all make clinical development more expensive and time-consuming. But the pressure is also constantly increasing to develop new, innovative medicines faster. So companies invest more dollars, with steadily decreasing yields in terms of such drugs on the market.

"Collaborations are in many cases the only possible solution--a powerful force driving old and new models."

The traditional models for clinical development are thus not producing the best results. Can collaboration between companies, academic institutions, and public (government and non-profit) organizations help solve the problem?

Collaboration has in fact yielded important developments in diagnostic and therapeutic products. However, truly collaborative efforts are in the minority. Particularly for biotech, diagnostic, device and pharmaceutical companies with stock traded on the public markets, or with funding from venture capital, private equity, or other investment-oriented platforms, there are strong drivers for limiting collaboration.

Particularly onerous are intellectual property (IP) concerns. Patent attorneys are normally terrified of collaborations, where the ownership of IP may be explicitly or implicitly impaired. Investment banks and fund managers are very nervous about modeling financial returns on new products where IP is shared. Development companies often have overt or implied policies greatly favoring internal development over collaboration. It could be argued that the greatest motivation behind the huge product in-licensing game is the desire to fully own product rights rather than to continue collaborations where the rights are not exclusive.

Bu the good news is that long-standing models and newer innovations in collaboration do work. Some examples are worth exploring. A huge influence currently on collaboration models across the spectrum is the revolution in immuno-oncology. More cash has gone into the development of drugs which enlist the immune system to attack cancer than any other field of drug development in history, some estimate by a factor of three. The great majority of current human clinical trials in the U.S. are in this field. There are over 200 separate drugs in development that attack a single target, PD-1--completely unprecedented. Due to the vast complexity of the human immune system, and also to the great promise that these drugs have shown in previously intractable cancers, the field has recognized that these drugs can only perform to full potential when used in combination. But the rationale for combinations is very obtuse, there are huge numbers of new drug targets and candidates, and there are many hundreds of institutions and companies involved in development of these combinations. Thus, collaborations are in many cases the only possible solution--a powerful force driving old and new models.

"As drugs have become more expensive, a huge drive has emerged, spurred by the brokers of health care, to limit the populations eligible to be prescribed an expensive new drug."

As marketing and reimbursement become increasingly complex, large commercial companies share the marketing of more products. Almost every large pharmaceutical and biotech company has products which are jointly sold with others.

Some pharmaceutical companies do a creditable job, often driven by ethical rather than economic concerns, of identifying drugs in their commercial or development portfolios which would be best in the hands of others, or which should be combined with products owned by others to achieve maximum patient benefit. Pfizer, for example, has a strong internal culture of not allowing products to become "dormant" in its hands, and actively seeks to collaboratively develop or license out such products.

Particularly in the immuno-oncology field, given the lack of firm knowledge about which combinations will work best in patients, both large and small companies are collaborating on both preclinical and clinical development. Merck, with its drug Keytruda, the leading anti-PD-1, has almost 1000 collaborative trials in progress. In most cases, the IP rights to a successful combination are not specified up-front; the desire is to see what works and deal with the rights and financial issues later.

Other companies have specifically engaged non-profit foundations and/or public bodies in collaborative efforts. This is of course not new--there is a very long history of pharmaceutical, diagnostic, and device companies either collaborating with the NIH or disease-focused foundations for development of products born from institutional research. The reverse is also true--both the NIH and foundations are often engaged to collaborate on development of products owned by industry. Sometimes these collaborations can be relatively complex. For example, Astra-Zeneca, Sloan Kettering, the Cancer Research Institute, and the National Cancer institute have engaged in a partnership to conduct clinical trials on combination cancer therapies involving the portfolio owned by Astra-Zeneca in combination with drugs owned by others, with device therapies and procedures, and with diagnostic products.

As drugs have become more expensive, a huge drive has emerged, spurred by the brokers of health care--the so-called 'insurance' companies and pharmaceutical benefit managers--to limit the populations eligible to be prescribed an expensive new drug. Thus, the field of "companion diagnostics" has crystallized. In a number of fields, including cardiology, urology, neurodegenerative disease, and oncology, developers of diagnostics and drugs seek each other out to jointly develop drug/diagnostic pairs which appropriately select patients for treatment. The number of such collaborations is escalating dramatically, although many large pharmaceutical companies have their own in-house programs.

"The lack of clinical trial data sharing has engendered some notable collaborative efforts."

But most large pharmaceutical companies are not in the business of selling diagnostic products, even if those products are so closely linked to a specific drug that they are included in the FDA-approved 'label' of that drug. As a result, some very collaborative relationships are emerging. Merck, which has a very large and active companion diagnostics development group, almost always seeks development and commercialization partners for internally innovated diagnostics – to the extent that the company actually gives away the rights and the commercial benefits of the diagnostic product. Such was the case with the Merck-developed Tau imaging agents related to Alzheimer's disease, which Merck made available without license to the entire industry. The company continues to drive such non-financial collaborations in other clinical disciplines.

Collaborations certainly take place between academic centers, but in comparison to others, they are few and of far less productive outcome. Many appear to be innovative and have great potential, but the results are often different. The collaboration between medical schools and research institutions in Northeast Ohio seems promising, but it is in large part just a means for gathering hard-to-find clinical trial patients into the giant local institutions, Case Western and the Cleveland Clinic. And the actual output of academic versus commercial development programs is usually poor. One new company recently did an exhaustive search for new clinical drug development candidates in a specific therapeutic area in academia and came up empty-handed, only to find a solid handful of candidate drugs "hiding" in pharmaceutical companies that they were willing to provide collaboratively or to license.

The lack of clinical trial data sharing has engendered some notable collaborative efforts. The Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy initially set out to promulgate standards for clinical trial data collection to make trial results in the thousands of combination trials more comparable. However, after some initial frustration, they are now working collaboratively with biotech companies, academia, and pharmaceutical companies to drive forward specific combination trials that experts believe should be done.

Foundations and public organizations also enable or initiate collaborative research. The Prostate Cancer Foundation has aggressively put academic and hospital-based research institutions together with industry to push the development of new effective therapies and diagnostics for prostate cancer, with remarkable success. The Veterans Administration has recently embarked on an aggressive program of collaborations with industry (with the help of funding from the Prostate Cancer Foundation) to allow use of the VA population and the very complete patient records to start clinical trials and other development efforts that would otherwise be very difficult.

"The near future will bring some surprising collaborative successes in the development of new drugs, devices, and diagnostics, but of course, some serious disappointments as well."

Finally, the financial industry at times facilitates collaborations, although they are usually narrow. Fund managers often get two or more of their portfolio companies to pool assets and/or IP to push forward more rapid development, or to provide structure for developments that otherwise could not go forward due to size or other resource limitations. For example, Orbimed, a health-care-focused investment firm, consistently drives cross-company development efforts within its large portfolio of drug and device companies.

So collaborative efforts are very much alive and well, which is great news for patients. Current realities in science, politics, reimbursement, and finance are driving diversity in collaborative arrangements. The near future will bring some surprising collaborative successes in the development of new drugs, devices, and diagnostics, but of course, some serious disappointments as well. And the very negative influence of the IP profession on collaborations will not be soon defeated.

Llew Keltner
Llew Keltner, M.D., Ph.D., has a 40-year career in biopharma drug and business development. He is Chief Executive Officer of EPISTAT, an international healthcare technology transfer, corporate risk management, and healthcare strategy company that he founded in 1972. Dr. Keltner is an Associate Professor at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine, and a Guest Lecturer and Director in the Bioethics Program at Columbia University School of Medicine. He is currently a member of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, American Association of Cancer Research, American Medical Association, International Association of Tumor Marker Oncology, American Association of Clinical Chemistry, and Drug Information Association. Dr. Keltner received an M.S. in Epidemiology and Biostatistics, a Ph.D. in Biomedical Informatics and an M.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
Get our top stories twice a month
Follow us on

Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.

"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.

Keep Reading Keep Reading
Lina Zeldovich
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Mosaic Science and other publications. She’s an alumna of Columbia University School of Journalism and the author of the upcoming book, The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth, from Chicago University Press. You can find her on and @linazeldovich.
Adobe Stock: bakhtiarzein

A highly contagious form of the coronavirus known as the Delta variant is spreading rapidly and becoming increasingly prevalent around the world. First identified in India in December, Delta has now been identified in 111 countries.

In the United States, the variant now accounts for 83% of sequenced COVID-19 cases, said Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at a July 20 Senate hearing. In May, Delta was responsible for just 3% of U.S. cases. The World Health Organization projects that Delta will become the dominant variant globally over the coming months.

Keep Reading Keep Reading
Emily Mullin
Emily Mullin is the acting editor of Most recently, she was a staff writer covering biotechnology at OneZero, Medium's tech and science publication. Before that, she was the associate editor for biomedicine at MIT Technology Review. Her stories have also appeared in The Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, National Geographic and Smithsonian Magazine.