August 2010

Industry-Academia Partnerships


A new agreement between the University of California, San Francisco and Genentech Inc. may be a turning point in how industry and academia conduct their business. (Titled "Partners in Crime: UCSF-Genentech partnership offers a brave new world of industry-academia interactions" in print version.)


UCSF researchers Michelle Arkin and Jim Wells will provide their expertise on small molecule screening and medicinal chemistry in a new partnership with Genentech.

This past January, the University of California, San Francisco and Genentech Inc. reached an agreement on a joint drug development program for neurodegenerative disorders. On the face of it, the deal, potential worth $13 million plus future royalties, doesn’t seem too splashy. After all, business ventures between industry and academia are a common occurrence, and Genentech and UCSF have had a master agreement for scientific exchange in place since 2005.

However, this modest proposal may be a turning point in how industry and academia conduct their business.

“What makes this deal unusual is that it is a true partnership where scientists at UCSF and Genentech are in continual communication and make joint project decisions,” notes American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology member James Wells, professor and chairman of the department of pharmaceutical chemistry at UCSF and director of their Small Molecule Discovery Center, as well as the recipient of the 2010 ASBMB-Merck Award.

Wells explains that pharmaceutical companies typically have followed one of two classic paths when working with universities. The first involves a company recognizing an asset and licensing it from a university; the school benefits from licensing fees, but, at the same time, the company drives the product forward and communication between the parties, outside of some occasional consulting, is minimal. The second path occurs when a university or lab has a particular skill or technology which a company finds useful, so, they pay a straight fee for the service.

In this new UCSF-Genentech agreement, scientists from both sides will work directly with each other on project teams; and, while the research will focus primarily on drug development, there also will be a strong push to answer intellectual questions and to publish papers in top journals.

So, in addition to some standard benefits— UCSF receives funding and potential royalties while Genentech gets access to expertise and technology that they don’t have to develop— staff members on both sides become enriched.

The UCSF Mission Bay campus, which houses the Small Molecule Discovery Center. Photo credit: Mark Defeo.

“Since the work is done under confidentiality, which puts some restraints on publication, we didn’t involve graduate students or postdocs because they rely on getting papers out,” says Michelle Arkin, adjunct assistant professor at UCSF and associate director of biology for the SMDC. “But, staff scientists on our side and junior scientists at Genentech are still learning and training, and this is a great educational experience if they want to work on the other side in the future.”

“It’s a tremendous step forward; it really resembles a deal that two biotech companies would make,” Wells adds. “And, to think, just 12 years ago, none of this probably could have happened.”


Indeed, 1998 sometimes seems like an eternity to Wells, who, at that time, had just left Genentech’s protein engineering department to head his own biotech company, Sunesis, while also serving as an adjunct faculty member at UCSF. And, although Wells was involved in both industry and university pies, back then, the two existed along clearly demarcated lines.

But, some interesting trends occurred on both sides over the next few years that would blur that clear distinction.

On the pharmaceutical end, it was becoming apparent that their longstanding business model was not working effectively. As a result, there were many layoffs, which not only increased a demand for external help, but also seemed to hinder the company’s innovative nature.

“With slowing business, they could no longer afford to be adventurous in drug screening, and now have become pretty mechanical, limiting their drug development efforts mainly to highly validated mechanisms and targets,” Wells says.

Adds Arkin, “In speaking with friends in the business, most pharmaceutical research today seems to center around 50 targets; I think researchers at UCSF alone are working on more than that.”

This strong target validation effort at UCSF represents the second trend that brought industry and academia closer; namely, that academics started to realize the value of small molecules or probes for basic research.

For more information

• The UCSF Small Molecule Discovery Center.

• Genentech Inc.

• Sunesis Pharmaceuticals Inc. 

This understanding nucleated from a National Institutes of Health initiative in 2005, as part of their roadmap to speed up drug development, by seeding molecular screening centers in a handful of academic institutes across the country. Soon afterwards, other top universities like Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and UCSF saw the value of screening and set up their own centers— often with former industry people in charge.

“We’ve been seeing a general shift where academics are becoming more and more translational,” notes Morgan Sheng, the vice-president of Genentech’s neuroscience division and actively involved in the UCSF partnership, “through a combination of economic changes, NIH initiatives and the accumulation of all the basic discoveries that have been made.”

“Academia definitely is getting savvier in drug screening and target validation,” agrees Wells, citing the SMDC as an example; not only do they have robust screening capabilities, but they also have strong biology and chemistry groups (headed by Arkin and Adam Renslo, respectively) that follow up on the screening – analyzing structures and mechanisms to get a more thorough idea of how these compounds work.

And, that caught the eye of Genentech.


The courtship began some two years ago when Wells gave a talk at Genentech. Afterwards, he spoke with numerous Genentech scientists and talked about some projects the SMDC was interested in, not thinking much of it.

Then, a few weeks later, Wells received a call from Genentech. “They said that our interests in neuroscience struck a chord with them, and they wanted to have some people come in and discuss a possible collaboration.”

“Generally, you don’t get into bed with someone you don’t know,” Sheng says. “But in this case, we knew Jim quite well; he worked at Genentech and still knows people there and has a fondness for the company. In addition, he’s local, making the partnership easier to foster.”

“Now, it’s not all backslapping,” Sheng continues. “Wells also is a great scientist with strong industry experience and a proven record in finding small molecule drugs. Together, everything converged at just the right historical, geographical and situational nexus to make a bold plan possible.”

It also was helpful that the protagonists involved didn’t have a language barrier; besides Wells’ extensive industry background, Sheng only came to Genentech two years ago, following a long tenure at Harvard Medical School and MIT.

“The mobility between academia and industry has been steadily increasing, which is why I think we’ll see more of this interplay in the future,” Sheng says. “If you’re a former academic at a management position in industry you’re prone to collaborate with academics, since you’re familiar with them.”

“And, that’s a positive development, because the two groups need each other,” Sheng continues. “Even though companies spend billions on R&D, that only contributes to a small percentage of total scientific discoveries. Working closely with academia is vital to help drive science forward.”

Assuming, of course, that this endeavor doesn’t fail, which always looms as a possibility. “It’s kind of like the early days of flying machines,” Arkin says. “Eventually, one design is going to revolutionize the field, but, before that, many others failed to get off the ground.”

However, things are proceeding well for this partnership, and Wells notes that both sides expressed great excitement at the last project meeting over the progress that had been made, so, perhaps UCSF and Genentech could be the Orville and Wilbur Wright of scientific collaboration.

Nick Zagorski ( is a science writer at ASBMB.

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