Collaborative Innovation Flourishes Through Alliances and Fellows

Three tailored collaborative programs serve as models for how academic innovators can jointly work with industry to rapidly bring new technology to patients. With clear objectives, strong organizational commitments and targeted resources, the resulting synergy is accelerating the development and application of important new technology.

The Pfizer Centers for Therapeutic Innovation (CTI) collaborations, the Sanofi iAwards, and the Innovation Fellows Program may differ in their specifics, but their common goals are the same—to build relationships, reduce barriers to collaboration, and speed the development of potential new therapeutics to improve patient care. Award recipients receive the benefit of working closely with industry-leading collaborators and possibly extending the project or converting it into a full-fledged drug development program.

Pfizer’s CTI

The Pfizer Centers for Therapeutic Innovation (CTI) launched six years ago as a way to leverage the combined resources of industry, academia, and disease foundations.

Each group brings something unique to the collaborative process. The CTI team provides drug development expertise and financial resources, academic researchers have strong biology and basic science knowledge, disease foundations and the unique insights directly derived from delivering care.

CTI has facilities in four major academic hubs across the United States: Boston, New York, San Diego and San Francisco; and draws on additional expertise within Pfizer.

Steven Greenberg, MD, a BWH neurologist and neuromuscular disease specialist, was one of the first Partners investigators to submit a proposal to the Boston-based CTI.

Dr. Greenberg’s academic research focuses on dermatomyositis (DM), an autoimmune disease predominantly affecting the skin and muscles that causes blisters or lesions, skin reddening, itching, and hair loss.

In 2012, Dr. Greenberg proposed developing a therapeutic antibody for DM. He began working with the CTI team later that year, and the collaboration has produced a potential medicine that is making its way through the drug development process.

Leigh Zawel, East Coast Site Head for Pfizer CTI, described the collaboration with Dr. Greenberg as an ideal example of how the program can work. “His approach to collaboration has been open and interested,” Zawel said. “Plus, the research program has the potential to help patients with conditions like dermatomyositis and lupus.”

One key aspect of the CTI program is that Pfizer and Partners HealthCare have signed a master agreement that outlines a process for projects to be considered for the program, and addresses IP, royalties, project milestones, and the operations of selected programs. “The main things the institution cares about are already worked out, so the CTI research team can move forward with investigators pretty smoothly once projects are selected,” Zawel said.

As the CTI program enters its seventh year, the projects approved during its first years are entering the final stages of development. “We started in 2010, our academic partnerships have been up and running since 2011 and now where the rubber meets the road is where we are bringing projects like Dr. Greenberg’s to the clinic, so this is an exciting moment,” Zawel said.

Sanofi iAwards

The Sanofi iAwards program was launched in 2015 as a way for the global pharmaceutical company to identify and develop innovative translational research proposals from academia.

Each year’s iAwards winners are chosen following a call for proposals at seven academic institutions across the U.S., including BWH and MGH.

iAward winners receive $125,000 to fund the development of their idea for one year as well as a dedicated Sanofi project champion, in-kind resources and expertise as needed.

As with the Pfizer CTI awards, IP terms have been negotiated ahead of time, so investigators can receive their funding and proceed with their projects.

Sanofi’s primary areas of interest are cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, oncology, immunology, multiple sclerosis, rare disease and biologics.

Of the 24 projects that received iAwards during the first round of funding, the company is moving three of them forward with sponsored research agreements including one from MGH.

“From our perspective, this works out to be a fantastic program,” says Sridaran Natesan, PhD, Sanofi VP of Strategic Initiatives and Scientific Relations, North America.

“We have been able to access the high-quality, innovative science that is happening in the academic medical centers in the iAwards network. That was the intent of the program, and we feel the objective has been achieved, even after one year.”

The Innovation Fellows Program

The Innovation Fellows Program is a new initiative launched by Partners HealthCare that seeks to increase interactions between industry and academia by facilitating personnel exchanges between research fellows at Partners’ core hospitals and participating biopharmaceutical companies and other commercial entities.

The program offers participants a chance to work directly with industry for a period of six to 24 months.

It was designed to build off smaller scale collaborations that have been happening between one company or department at a time, explains Seema Basu, PhD, Director of Licensing and Strategic Collaborations at Partners Innovation. “There is a pull from both sides to do this. We have so many talented trainees here who are exploring where they best fit in terms of career options.”

Trainees who participate in the program may decide to continue on with industry or return to academia. If the trainees decide to work in industry, the hope is that they will serve as ambassadors and help to facilitate additional collaborations down the line.

If they come back to academia, they will have an important understanding of how industry works, which will lead to more fruitful collaborations and better outcomes, says Basu. “Either way its a win-win.”