August 2010

Industry-Academia Partnerships

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.”

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