As big patents expire, Rx firms partner with universities

Million-dollar partnerships could blurb boundaries, some critics say

Topics: Joint Ventures, Hospital-Physician Alignment, Physician Issues, Medication Administration, Quality, Performance Improvement

January 14, 2013

The world's largest pharmaceutical companies and top academic medical centers are increasingly entering into million-dollar partnerships to advance drug research and development.

According to the AP/Sacramento Bee, a key driver of the partnerships is the looming expiration of the drugmakers' profitable brand-name drugs, such as the anti-depressant Seroquel, the cholesterol treatment Lipitor, and the gastroesophageal reflux disease drug Protonix. Officials at universities in such partnerships said the collaborations help scientists focus more of their time on research and less on paperwork.

One of the earliest and biggest collaborators has been Pfizer, which in 2010 entered a five-year, $22.5 million agreement with Washington University in St. Louis to identify new uses for hundreds of drug compounds that have stalled or nearly stalled in clinical trials. Pfizer also has a five-year, $85 million research partnership with the University of California-San Francisco, and has struck similar deals with at least six other leading universities and medical centers nationwide.

In addition, Harvard University maintains a research deal with French drugmaker Sanofi-Aventis and Belgian drugmaker UCB, while the Yale School of Medicine has a multiyear cancer research agreement with U.S.-based Gilead Sciences.

However, the AP/Bee reports that research agreements have raised concern among "academic purists," who wonder whether such partnerships compromise science.

"What it does is to blur the boundaries between academic medical centers and investor-owned companies," Marcia Angell, a former NEJM editor-in-chief and a critic of the partnerships, told the Associated Press. She notes that academic medical centers and hospitals are "supposed to be doing cutting-edge research, not just research on drugs .... They're supposed to be taking care of the sickest and neediest people in society." Those objectives are "quite different from the mission of investor-owned companies," she says (Scher Zagier, AP/Bee, 1/10).

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