Research News

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UB part of $47 million partnership to advance drug discovery in upstate NY

By JOHN DELLACONTRADA and CHARLOTTE HSU

Published May 24, 2018

“The Empire Discovery Institute will streamline New York’s efforts to translate our wealth of groundbreaking life science research into viable treatments and medicines — which in turn will catalyze new jobs, new companies and new investments in this cutting-edge industry.”
Howard Zemsky, president, CEO and commissioner
Empire State Development

UB, Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center and the University of Rochester have joined together to form a powerful new drug discovery partnership that aims to convert the institutions’ scientific breakthroughs into viable pharmaceuticals for commercialization and strengthen the region as a hub for life sciences research and development.

The partners are establishing the Empire Discovery Institute (EDI), an independent, nonprofit entity that will identify promising drug candidates and move them toward clinical trials. The institute will help UB, Roswell Park and University of Rochester researchers conduct preclinical testing of promising compounds discovered in their labs. Researchers will also receive assistance in designing new drugs for drug targets they have identified through their work.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced the new partnership will receive $35.4 million in funding over five years from Empire State Development, in addition to $12 million worth of in-kind support from the partner institutions.

“New York is home to world-leading institutions producing cutting-edge research, advancements and breakthroughs in human health,” Cuomo said. “The Empire Discovery Institute will harness New York’s wealth of academic capital and provide the resources needed to bring life-changing discoveries out of the lab and into the economy, generating new jobs, new companies and new investments in the growing life sciences sector.”

“The Empire Discovery Institute will streamline New York’s efforts to translate our wealth of groundbreaking life science research into viable treatments and medicines — which in turn will catalyze new jobs, new companies and new investments in this cutting-edge industry,” said Empire State Development President, CEO and Commissioner Howard Zemsky.

graphic illustrating drug discovery

Judith Dunn, a former vice president of pharmaceutical giant Roche, has joined EDI as its first CEO. Dunn brings 25 years of pharmaceutical development experience to upstate New York, having served as global head of clinical development for Roche and head of the company’s Innovation Center.

“From our state-of-the-art new home of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences to our innovative Clinical and Translational Research Center, UB has invested significantly to build upon our strengths in bench-to-bedside research and training,” said President Satish K. Tripathi. “Now, with Gov. Cuomo’s Life Science Initiative spurring the growth of a world-class life-science research sector, we are able to establish this important partnership with Roswell Park and the University of Rochester. The EDI will allow us to leverage UB’s established life science infrastructure and our wealth of research expertise to usher drug discoveries from ideas to proof of concept to — ultimately — the marketplace. This will provide life-changing treatments to patients across the world while fueling innovation and economic growth right here in Western New York.”

“There are so many promising ideas originating from our basic-science teams, and this groundbreaking partnership will accelerate our ability to translate those Roswell Park discoveries into life-saving cancer therapies,” said Candace S. Johnson, president and CEO of Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. “The Empire Discovery Institute will shepherd collaboration between researchers and industry experts, overcoming the many barriers that hamper innovation from moving from bench to bedside, and directly benefitting cancer patients.”

“Biopharma companies are increasingly dependent upon academic research for the development of new drugs. Rochester and Buffalo academic institutions provide a strong foundation of research and development in critical life science fields,” said Mark Taubman, CEO of the University of Rochester Medical Center. “We are deeply grateful for Gov. Cuomo’s leadership and the opportunity to bring the University of Rochester’s rich history of biomedical innovation to partnerships with industry. Together, we can nurture a vibrant and growing life sciences economy in the region.”

Each institution will have two members on the EDI board. Tripathi, Johnson and Peter Robinson, COO of the University of Rochester Medical Center, will serve as EDI’s founding board members, as will Venu Govindaraju, UB vice president for research and economic development; Taubman, with the University of Rochester Medical Center; and Thomas Schwaab, chief of strategy, business development and outreach, Roswell Park.

EDI to focus on early-stage drug discovery

UB, Roswell Park and the University of Rochester are already major players in New York State’s life sciences economy. Together, they have received significant federal and other funding for life sciences research, with awards totaling more than $1.15 billion from the National Institutes of Health alone from 2013 to 2017.

EDI will support the partners in converting research discoveries into viable drug candidates. In assessing the potential impact of this initiative, UB, Roswell Park and the University of Rochester have identified scores of drug targets currently under study in the three institutions. These targets represent considerable untapped potential for discovering drugs to treat Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, multiple sclerosis, hearing loss, diabetes and drug abuse, among other conditions. Without this initiative, most of the potential human health impact of existing and future drug target discoveries by investigators at the academic partners would go unrealized due to the lack of research resources, expertise and funding needed to validate targets, design and synthesize compound libraries, and conduct preclinical validation.

The goal is to generate new economic activity in upstate New York by ultimately moving the new drug treatments through EDI, leading to licensing deals with pharmaceutical and biotech companies, and the formation of startup companies that will continue developing the drugs. These new companies may ultimately partner with or be acquired by larger companies, providing job-growth opportunities to the region and investment returns to EDI and the institutions.

EDI’s focus will be on early-stage drug discovery. This includes identifying and designing drug candidates and assisting researchers in examining new drugs’ efficacy and safety in animal models and early-stage clinical trials.  

These efforts will focus on helping new discoveries overcome what is often referred to as the “valley of death,” or the period of time after the initial funding for the research has ended but before continued development of the drug has been taken over by a biotech or pharmaceutical company. Moving new drug candidates more efficiently through the discovery and validation stages adds tremendous value, making them much more attractive to industry partners and investors.  

To help with this research, EDI will employ its own scientists — researchers with industry expertise in fields such as medicinal chemistry and protein engineering that are crucial to translating basic research into viable products. The institute’s staff will also provide guidance on meeting federal regulations and industry needs.

Generating new startups, licensing deals

Similar academic collaborations have been created in other areas of the country with concentrations of life sciences academic institutions, including more recently a partnership in New York City between Columbia University, Rockefeller University and Cornell University.

During EDI’s initial five-year funding period, the institute is forecast to accept about 20 new projects. This means the institute will work with UB, Roswell Park and University of Rochester researchers to advance the development of about 20 promising drug candidates.

By the end of the five-year period, it’s expected that several of the projects will have advanced to the point where a drug can be licensed to a pharmaceutical firm, or a startup can be formed.

“EDI will provide partner institutions with financial resources, as well as pharmaceutical development expertise previously unavailable to them during the early stage of drug discovery,” said Dunn. “This is vitally important, as such support for early-stage drug development research is often unavailable in academic settings.

“Drug discovery is expensive and there is a high rate of attrition as projects progress through the various phases of development. Prior to investing in rights to drug candidates or early stage companies, potential pharma and venture partners require completion of key experiments which mitigate some of this risk,” she said. “Together with the academic investigators, EDI will design and prosecute experiments which will address key drivers of value and risk in order to make these early-stage programs more compelling to potential investors.”