Developing pharma success stories


The infamous “valley of death” is a bleak place for intellectual property. Researchers invest years in technologies, only to face an indefinite stall in development. And, while faculty in all disciplines have seen technologies wither on the vine, early stage pharmaceuticals are especially vulnerable.

Fortunately, the University of Minnesota’s Committee for Pharmaceutical Development (CPD) has been created to guide researchers through the valley and bring life-altering drugs to market.

Cutting out cancer

Therapeutic radiology professor Daniel Vallera’s team is developing an immunotoxin that targets cancer stem cells. Resistant to radiation and chemotherapy, cancer stem cells cause tumors to grow faster and larger, enabling the cells to self-renew. If a drug could destroy cancer stem cells, it would be like pulling dandelions out by the roots, and patients could evade cancer relapse.

But Vallera and co-investigators John Ohlfest and Jayanth Panyam were at a standstill. Unsure of which direction their drug should take, and lacking funding, this important project was stuck.

“In research, you don’t have the budgetary support to bridge that valley of death. It’s harder to get money these days for drug development,” says Vallera.

“Pharmaceutical companies want to spend less money on drug development and more money on drugs they are sure are going somewhere.”

Navigating drug development

Among thousands of drugs under development at a given time, only 10 to 20 drugs reach the market each year, says Chuck Muscoplat, chair of the CPD.

Muscoplat has seen countless promising drugs perish during his 20 years in the pharmaceutical industry. The problem, he says, is that the drug development process is long and expensive, and most researchers don’t know how to navigate the process.

“It typically takes $800 million to $1 billion to develop a drug, but at the university, we have done it for much cheaper,” he says. “Drug development is a team sport. You need lots of players and lots of money.”

Funding pharma

Federal funding sources don’t typically support pharmaceutical development past the point of basic scientific research. But the CPD is awarding funding and offering guidance to researchers to translate interesting research into purposeful treatments.

The CPD advisory board is comprised of industry pros who have at least one pharmaceutical project success story under their belt. Many have four to six drugs they have developed.

For Vallera, the CPD award sealed the deal for a matching grant from a philanthropic organization. He and his colleagues will use the funds to make a large clinical batch of the therapeutic and carry the drug nearly to the clinic.

“One of the biggest problems is we don’t know how to use this drug, as yet,” says Vallera. “The CPD helped us figure out the best way to develop this technology, as well as fund its development.”

Team up today

For U of M researchers who are ready to get involved, here are some quick facts on the CPD:

  • Total program funding: $1.5 million for three-year pilot initiative
  • Supports pharma research that is within one stage of commercialization
  • Applicants notified of award as early as two to four weeks after submitting proposal
  • Sponsored by VP for Health Sciences and VP for Research
  • Proposals accepted on a rolling basis
  • A portion of royalties generated from technologies fund future awards

Submit your proposal today and keep an eye on your inbox for an invitation to a free CPD workshop.

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