Gairdner speakers say collaboration is needed for biomedical innovation

The potential for creating breakthrough medicines has never been greater, so why then are so few new drugs reaching the marketplace? That was one of the key questions addressed at a symposium on the commercialization of biomedical innovations held at York University recently.

The Entrepreneurship & Commercialization in Biomedical Science Symposium, took place on Thursday, May 14 in the McEwen Auditorium of the Schulich School of Business. This symposium had a special significance as it commemorated the 50th anniversaries of both York University and The Gairdner Foundation, solidifying an important partnership between the two institutions.

The Gairdner Foundation recognizes the world’s leading medical research scientists through its prestigious annual awards program for biomedical science. The symposium, which was hosted by York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering and Schulich School of Business, brought together scientist entrepreneurs, Canadian venture capital firms, the biomedical industry and policy-makers. The symposium was made possible by the generous support of sponsors GE Healthcare, Pfizer, Sanofi Pasteur/Sanofi Aventis, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Government of Ontario.

Presenting at the symposium were keynote speakers Corey Goodman, former president of the Biotherapeutics and Bioinnovation Center at Pfizer, Inc. and a Gairdner Laureate for his work in neuroscience, and Michael Hayden, director and senior scientist of the Centre for Molecular Medicine & Therapeutics, University of British Columbia, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) 2008 Health Researcher of the Year for Biomedical & Clinical Research. Following Goodman and Hayden’s presentations, there was a case study panel on the development, commercialization and health policy implications of vaccines, followed by discussion moderated by Mark Lievonen, president of Sanofi Pasteur Limited and a member of York’s Board of Governors. The speakers in this session were Dr. Alan Bernstein, president emeritus of the CIHR and the executive director of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise in New York City and also a Gairdner-Wightman Award recipient; Susan Smith, founder of the Royal Bank Growth Corp. and former president & CEO of RBC Technology Ventures and a member of the board of Toronto’s MaRS Centre; and Professor Richard Gold, Faculty of Law, McGill University. Goodman and Hayden joined the speakers for the panel discussion.

Above: From left, symposium speakers Michael Hayden, Alan Bernstein, Susan Smith, Richard Gold and Corey Goodman

In his presentation titled "Academia, Biotech and Pharma: Navigating the Interface to Build a New Model for Drug Discovery and Development", Goodman outlined the urgent need for new models of drug discovery and development. “We need all three legs of the stool – academia, biotech and pharma – working together in new collaborative models if we are going to deliver on the promise of bringing important new medicines forward for human health,” said Goodman.

Right: Corey Goodman

In addition to advocating new ways of collaboration between the three legs, Goodman noted that each area brought different and unique strengths to the table. Academia is often the most adept at making scientific discoveries, he said, while the biotech industry excels at innovation, and the pharmaceutical industry is best when it comes to putting new medicines on the market. Goodman said his own experience working in all three areas has provided him with valuable insights on how to create dynamic partnerships between the three disciplines.

Hayden agreed with Goodman and said the current models of drug development are not working, despite increases in investment. “Pharma is an industry in crisis," he said. "There are staggering failure rates in drug trials and R&D is costly and time-consuming. The model of traditional funding is broken,” said Hayden. “We need new models for sustainability.”

Hayden thinks that rare and exceptional genetic diseases and cases offer the best opportunity to learn and innovate in the quest to develop new drugs. In Nairobi, Kenya, he studied a group of people who contracted HIV but never developed typical symptoms. His team of researchers connected this outcome to a mutated genome, providing hope for drug development. “Rare events prove the rule; extreme traits are a winning formula,” he said.

Left: Michael Hayden

In his comments, Bernstein said that with more than 33 million people around the world infected with HIV, there is an immediate requirement for a coordinated global effort to address unmet scientific needs in vaccine research, and to mobilize new investments and stimulate partnerships. Bernstein works with the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, which he described as “an alliance of independent organizations sharing ideas, data and people to create a strategic, innovative approach to finding a vaccine.”

Smith said that although Canada has made strong progress in positioning itself as a potential leader in biotech and medical research, two clear threats exist to innovation and collaboration. They are the current global financial downturn and the lack of clear federal government policy and support.

Gold said that new attitudes and deployment of patent and data protection rights are necessary for developing new vaccines, particularly those aimed at meeting health needs in developing countries. “We need to encourage the creation of independent trust builders,” he said. “The key to collaboration is to create platforms to encourage the free flow of knowledge; to disseminate knowledge so everyone can grow and innovate.”

The symposium attracted scientists, entrepreneurs, academics, students and representatives from the fields of biomedical research, patent law, public policy, biotech, pharma and venture capital.

Submitted to YFile by Michelle Cholak, communications intern, Schulich School of Business