This entry is courtesy our friends over at the Integrity in Science Watch, http://www.cspinet.org/integrity/. Their Sept. 8 press release features a rundown of sweetheart deals recently concluded between big drug firms and major universities, headlined by a 5-year, $25M deal between Harvard and GlaxoSmithKline giving GSK first rights to any patents generated by Harvard scientists around stem cell research. Equal numbers of GSK and Harvard reps sit on the steering committee to oversee this process. Similar deals listed by Integrity include UC-Santa Barbara, Cal Tech, MIT, U Mass, and Columbia all joining forces with AstraZeneca, and I previously blogged about UNC pretty much selling its school of public health to a commercial CRO (http://brodyhooked.blogspot.com/2008/09/cros-how-independent-really.html).
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the Integrity post is this comment: The drug industry is increasingly turning to campus-based researchers to supplement its own lagging research and development efforts, which have fallen on hard times. The number of new drugs coming out of industry labs and approved by the Food and Drug Administration is at record-low levels.
This analysis tends to confirm a trend that I suggested in HOOKED. It is really interesting that the assembly-line, merger-mania model of industrial research that the industry has favored heavily for the past 15-20 years has been such a bust. The industry thought that they could pretty much crank out useful and safe new molecules on demand if they just used a highly industrial system in which business efficiency and close links between R&D and marketing were the operative principles. Turns out, not so. So now the industry is coming back to the academic investigators, whose "inefficient" habits condemned them under the old regime. (Could it be that being really curious about how things work is actually a pretty good way to generate new scientific knowledge? Or that you really ought to try to understand basic mechanisms before you rush off to develop a new drug?)
This is of course good news for a University president frustrated with dropping NIH research budgets and the loss of tax revenues for higher ed., and who is looking to industry as the sugar daddy du jour. It is bad news for those of us concerned about the integrity of science and the huge conflicts of interest that arise when industry takes over the academic enterprise. The sad point is that there are, generally, pretty good ways to get the research done but also to maintain the integrity and separateness of the academic institution. To negotiate such a contract those on the U. side need a backbone, and a couple of other pieces of anatomical equipment best left unspecified in a family blog. In today's race to the pay window, too few universities seem to have the requisite anatomical parts. Even Harvard.