Pharma/University Partnerships in Drug Research and Development: An uncomfortable Fit?

In Greek mythology Procrustes greeted travelers with an overnight stay in a bed which would only fit them with their legs chopped off.

January 16, 2013

A number of big pharma companies are turning upside down the traditional drug discovery process built between the academic and industrial sectors ( For years, pharma companies have scoured peer reviewed journals, ferreting out basic science discoveries in chemistry and molecular biology. These “diamonds in the rough” are purchased from universities and then taken through drug development and hopefully clinical trials, eventually adding new products to the marketplace. This approach was based on the model of the academic sector as the institution where basic science produces new insights into fundamental laws of nature, which can then be taken through the long process of tweaking and modifying promising molecules and then subjecting them to cell culture evaluation, animal investigations and finally ascending levels of trials in human patients.

But recently drug companies have moved to direct support of university researchers, a move that has drawn the ire of industry critics. This strategy is driven by the drop in federal funding that has forced faculty members to scramble for research support, combined with the falling approval rates of prospective drugs by the FDA. It is not clear how successful this tactic will be in the long run, as it may constitute an ill-fitting procrustean bed (

In my years as an academic researcher I received support at times from industrial sources, which enabled me to move my research forward. However, there is a conflict of interest between the academic and industrial sectors, since pharma seeks products on a tight time line, whereas academicians are driven by very long term goals of discovery. These may stretch out over years, and their yield is measured in publications in top-quality journals.

This new day dawning is a work in progress. Top ranked chemistry and engineering departments have enjoyed industrial support for decades, and do not appear to have suffered from this relationship. It remains to be seen how this vast flow of pharma money into the universities will affect their long range mission. It is fervently to be hoped that universities will not find themselved chopped off at their figurative knees.


There are currently no comments

Submit a Comment

Please be sure to fill in all information. Comments are moderated. Please no link dropping, domains as names; do not spam and do not advertise.