August 2010

Industry-Academia Partnerships

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.”

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