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10 rival drugmakers team up to find cures

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By USA Today
Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, 7:30 p.m.

In an unprecedented move designed to jump-start medical science, 10 rival drug companies that usually compete ferociously against each other will cooperate not just with government researchers and nonprofits, but with each other.

Some of the world's largest drugmakers, including Sanofi and Pfizer, will join a five-year, $230 million partnership to speed up the pace of drug development in several key conditions — Alzheimer's disease, type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus — according to an announcement from the National Institutes of Health.

In an unusual move, the data accrued by the project — known as the Accelerating Medicines Partnership — will be openly accessible, not just to the research partners, but to scientists everywhere, according to NIH.

By sharing information, researchers hope to get promising discoveries to patients more quickly. With failure rates for new drugs at about 95 percent, the average cost to develop a treatment — from discovery through final approval — is about $1 billion. The process takes at least a decade, according to NIH.

“We have all kinds of information now, but maybe it hasn't quite been turned into knowledge,” said NIH Director Francis Collins.

Diseases such as Alzheimer's are too complex “to be solved by any one organization,” said Lon Cardon, senior vice president of alternative discovery and development at drug maker GlaxoSmithKline. “This is the type of global health issue that needs the resources and scientific know-how that pharma, academia and nonprofits can harness together.”

The project will focus on finding and testing new “biomarkers” for disease, such as proteins in the blood that could help doctors diagnose a disease or gauge whether a drug is actually working, said Maria Carrillo, vice president of medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer's Association, one of eight nonprofits in the partnership.

Normally, it takes many years to make sure that potential biomarkers really work. Through this partnership, however, researchers will begin incorporating potential biomarkers into Alzheimer's studies under way.

“Let's find these targets, then let these companies loose” to develop their own, competing drugs, Collins said.

“Patients and their caregivers are relying on science to find better and faster ways to detect and treat disease and improve their quality of life,” Collins said. “Currently, we are investing a great deal of money and time in avenues with high failure rates, while patients and their families wait. All sectors of the biomedical enterprise agree that new approaches are sorely needed.”

While patients shouldn't expect new treatments overnight, the project should help drug companies to get on the right path more quickly, said Mikael Dolsten, president of worldwide research and development at Pfizer.

Josh Bloom, director of chemical and pharmaceutical sciences at the American Council on Science and Health, an advocacy group, noted that $230 million doesn't buy as much as people might think. That amount is “one-tenth the amount it takes to discover and develop a single drug,” he said. But because the early phases of drug research tend to be the least expensive, “the funding will get them started.”

In some ways, cancer researchers are ahead of others in the burgeoning field of “precision medicine,” Collins said. Cancer scientists have found a large number of genetic “targets” for new drugs, allowing doctors to better predict which patients are likely to benefit from a drug and which patients would suffer only side effects.

Not all drug companies are signing up. Daniel Grotzky, a spokesman for Roche, said his company was most interested in collaborating on schizophrenia. When that disease didn't make the final four, Roche opted not to participate. “We will observe how the partnership progresses and are open to looking into it again down the road,” Grotzky said.

Other nonprofits joining the partnership include the American Diabetes Association and the Lupus Foundation of America and five others. Other drugmakers include AbbVie, Biogen Idec, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Johnson &Johnson, Lilly, Merck and Takeda.

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