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Consortium a welcome booster shot for pharmaceutical research



Published: 8 hours ago


Up to $48 million over four years could be pumped into drug discovery in Quebec under an innovative new consortium that links governments, pharmaceutical companies and universities.


The Quebec Consortium for Drug Discovery, announced last week by Economic Development Minster Raymond Bachand, could be a welcome shot in the arm for the pharmaceutical and biotech sectors in Montreal.


The industry has a significant presence in Quebec, with 145 companies, nearly 21,000 jobs, and five centres for basic pharmaceutical research. About $550 million in new investments have been announced since 2006.


But like the rest of the industry worldwide, the biopharmaceutical companies operating here have been struggling to find and develop the next generation of blockbuster drugs to treat more complex medical conditions.


The easy discoveries have been made. For example, it's a lot easier to develop a product to lower blood pressure than one that enhances memory in an Alzheimer's patient.


Meanwhile, regulatory requirements are rising amid public concern over drug safety and efficacy. And the cost and time it takes to develop a new drug and bring it to market continue to increase.


Bachand hopes to create some new momentum and capitalize on the research strengths already here. The plan is to create a public-private partnership that will foster research at the pre-competitive stage.


Private sector participants are AstraZeneca, Merck Frosst and Pfizer Canada, with each expected to kick in $5 million over five years.


University players include McGill, the Université de Montréal, Université Laval and the Université de Sherbrooke.


Government funding will come from Quebec's Ministry of Economic Development and its Fonds de la recherche en santé du Québec.


The federal government has been asked to chip in through its Networks of Centres of Excellence program.


Small biotech companies can also participate by applying for funding from the consortium for their own research projects.


The initial amount of money may seem small, but the goal is to build new links between the players in Quebec, the consortium's director, Max Fehlmann, said in an interview.


The emphasis will be on finding drug-discovery technologies that can benefit the entire industry rather than on finding new molecules per se, he said.


The idea is to make that intellectual property available to other investors in the program, who would pay a licensing fee to the discoverer to access the findings.


Quebec's program is modeled on similar ventures in Europe and the U.S. The difference, said Fehlmann, is those programs are government-run while this one will be steered by consortium members themselves.


The drug venture is also inspired by a similar program in the province's aerospace sector. The Consortium for Research and Innovation in Aerospace in Quebec funds pre-competitive research and licenses the findings to its various industrial partners.


Philippe Walker, vice-president of research at AstraZeneca Canada, says "the idea is to develop a kind of neutral, fertile ground where ideas could be exchanged."


ne example, he says, could be to find new brain imaging techniques that would help to confirm a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease and evaluate at an early stage whether new drugs are having an effect on the patient.


"This could tap into the historical strengths of various groups in Montreal who have developed imaging technology.


"There are a lot of good things happening in Quebec," Walker added. One reason AstraZeneca invested in its Montreal research facility was to be close to academic scientists working here in the pain research field.


Collaboration is considered a key to creativity in drug science, because new discovery often comes at the intersection between two disciplines.


"It's extremely difficult and complex to develop a new drug," Walker said. "The pharma industry in general, not only in Quebec, is suffering from a reduction in productivity if it's measured by the number of new (products) that are put on the market."


On average, the drug industry spends between $800 million and $1.7 billion (over a 12-to-15 year period of research and development) to bring a new product to commercialization, U.S. data show.


The Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. backed its collaboration initiative, known as Critical Path, in the hope that it would help to cut delays and costs.


And backers of the venture in Quebec are betting it can lead to the same kinds of gains.





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