Open day review: bridging the gap between academia and industry

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  • Academia is currently undergoing un-precedented changes in the way it is both funding and instigating its research. The drive to commercialize research, combined with increasingcompetition for limited sources of gov-ernment and charitable funding, meansthat some academics are turning to in-dustry, either to finance their research,or as a career move. Academics are alsofacing tough choices between pursuingpurely academic research and sharply fo-cussed applied research. This has createda very exciting environment, but it hasalso raised a number of difficult andchallenging issues.

    The University of Bristol has a missionto build commerce on a strong technol-ogy base. To this effect, the Universityhas set up the Bristol Enterprise Centre(BEC) following its successful bid underthe governments Science EnterpriseChallenge. BEC is seeking to forge stra-tegic partnerships with commerce andindustry, so as to foster an entrepreneurialculture, thereby supporting innovationand wealth creation. It is against thisbackdrop that the Department ofPharmacology set up an open day for in-dustry, aiming to enhance existing, andforge new, links between academia andindustry.

    The open day was structured in such away that a panel discussion followedeach day of scientific talks, providing anopportunity for academics and industri-alists to air their views on the merits ofacademicindustrial collaborations. Thepanel consisted of both research repre-sentatives (John Lackie, YamanouchiPharmaceutical Company, West Byfleet,UK; and Darren Hart, Sense Proteomic,

    Cambridge, UK) and business represen-tatives (David Ricketts, Inpharmatica,London, UK; and Phil Luton, Centre forApplied Microbiological Research, PortonDown, UK) from the pharmaceutical andbiotechnology industries. Initially, PeterRoberts (Head of Department, Universityof Bristol, Bristol, UK) described recentdevelopments within the department,which have included the complete refurbishment and expansion of thelaboratories. He also summarized the departments principal research area,which is cell signalling: ranging fromsynthesis of pharmacological tools, ionchannel biophysics and molecular pharmacology, to in vivo studies.

    Scientific collaborative discussionsRoland Kozlowski (University of Bristol)started the scientific proceedings by de-scribing a collaboration with colleaguesfrom the EU and Sense Proteomic, forwhich he is CEO. Sense Proteomic will becreating arrays of functional proteins to identify novel binding partners to cytosolic domains of the cystic fibrosistransmembrane regulator (CFTR). Thisshould help to identify potential newways of either enhancing CFTR activityor assisting its translocation to the mem-brane, aspects that would be worked onin collaboration with scientists at Bristoland elsewhere in the EU.

    Graeme Henderson (University ofBristol) described his work on the role of purinergic P2X receptors in the en-hancement of neurotransmitter releaseby mesencephalic neurones, which was initiated in collaboration withGlaxoWellcome. He highlighted the po-tential for novel drugs for controlling

    pain, but suggested that there is a needfor more effective agonists and antagon-ists, particularly agents that will cross thebloodbrain barrier.

    Eamonn Kelly (University of Bristol)talked about the physiological andpathophysiological importance of recep-tor desensitization and suggested thatthis is an exploitable target for drug ther-apy. For example, the use of -adreno-ceptor agonists in congestive heart failure is surprisingly disappointing, withthe heart failure becoming worse. This islikely to be, at least in part, a conse-quence of G-protein-coupled receptorkinase II (GRKII)-mediated receptor de-sensitization. Similarly, in asthma, 40%of sufferers carry a polymorphism in the-adrenoceptor, increasing susceptibilityto GRK-induced desensitization. Thus, intheory, GRK and arrestin inhibitors couldimprove the efficacy of therapies in-volving agonists at G-protein-coupled receptors. A key research area to be tackled would be the selectivity of such inhibitors, to avoid undesirable side effects.

    Alastair Poole (University of Bristol)discussed problems with current ap-proaches to influencing the pathophysi-ology of platelet activation, such as the use of aspirin and fibrinogen. Hesuggested an alternative approach, in-volving the targeting of early adhesionevents, and has developed a novel cell-functional assay system based on cellsignalling events.

    Kanamarlapudi Venkateswarlu (Uni-versity of Bristol), who also has a particu-lar interest in intracellular signallingprocesses, described the many roles ofphosphatidylinositol (PI) 3-kinases in

    DDT Vol. 6, No. 1 January 2001 update conferences

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    Open day review: bridging the gapbetween academia and industryPeter J. Roberts and *Roland Z. Kozlowski, Department of Pharmacology, The Medical School, University of Bristol, University Walk, Bristol, UKBS8 1TD. *tel: +1 0117 928 7630, fax: +1 0117 925 0168, e-mail: roland.kozlowski@bristol.ac.uk

  • update conferences DDT Vol. 6, No. 1 January 2001

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    normal and abnormal cell function, andsuggested that these enzymes mightrepresent new therapeutic targets. Forexample, in both lung and ovarian can-cers, PI 3-kinases are constitutively ac-tive. To further this work, Venkateswarludescribed the development of a novelfluorescence resonance energy transfer(FRET)-based PI 3-kinase assay thatwould enable rapid investigation of potential inhibitor molecules.

    Maria Usowicz and Neil Marrion (bothUniversity of Bristol) described their re-spective investigations into neuronal ionchannel function. Usowicz focussed onnovel isoforms of P-type calcium chan-nels, which present possible novel thera-peutic targets in a wide range of chan-nelopathies, including absence epilepsy,chronic and episodic cerebellar ataxia,familial hemiplegic migraine and aspectsof cognition. Marrion continued the calcium channel theme, discussing func-tional coupling between the various cal-cium channel types found in hippocam-pal neurones. Modulation of the poorlycharacterised calcium-activated potas-sium (SK) channels can alter cognitivefunction, particularly in aged animals.

    David Nutt (University of Bristol) gavean overview of the PsychopharmacologyUnits work on the pharmacology ofsleep disorders and anxiety. He de-scribed the exciting application ofhuman neuroimaging to quantitativelyprobe the involvement of specific neuro-transmitter systems in these disordersand the effects of specific drugs.

    Industrialacademic collaborativeissuesFollowing scientific discussion, the focusshifted to more general issues relating to industrialacademic collaboration.One of the major criticisms raised by thepanel was of university Industrial LiaisonOffices (ILOs), whom industrialistsdeemed bureaucratic, inefficient and un-realistic with respect to revenues frompotential collaborations. Representativesfrom Bristol Universitys ILO equivalent

    stated clearly that their policy was to beindustry-friendly, and that they have puttogether a commercially aware and ex-perienced team to resolve such issues.Indeed, academic and industrial institu-tions are working together to produce astandardized application form for struc-turing collaborations. A second signifi-cant criticism raised was that ILOs haveno understanding of value. Both aca-demics and industrialists agreed that apatent is a long way from a product andthat universities should not expect hugeroyalties in the absence of financial risk(in researching a product that might require many years of development andhigh costs).

    Much discussion followed in relationto forming collaborations. Industrialistsstated that large companies receive hun-dreds of requests for funding academicprojects. It was expressly stated thatcold-calling, that is, a short proposal of~500 words, would be enough to gener-ate interest. All were in agreement that itis essential to find a corporate cham-pion to push the project forward inter-nally. The issue of costs was also raised,and the industrial panel suggested thatindustrialists would be happy to pay forfull overhead costs, providing that theyare properly justified.

    Pure versus applied researchA topic of considerable discussion waswhether or not academics should carryout contract research. The consensus ofthe academic and industrialist represen-tation was that, generally, academia waspoorly suited to this activity. Indeed, thepanel felt that academia is better placedto carry out open-minded research with-out the constraints of working towards aspecific commercial end-point, allowingindustrialists to tap into research exper-tise and new areas as they develop. This,however, conflicts with the govern-ments current obsession with innovationand commercialization of research.Should academics be actively involved increating, and perhaps running, spin-off

    or start-up companies? It was felt thatsuch issues are best handled through the host institution and a view taken onthe qualities, personality and skills of theindividuals involved. The academic rep-resentation present, however, felt thatsuch companies could represent a drainon staff who could lose interest in theiracademic duties. However, all agreedthat such organizations represent an ex-cellent way of exploiting the universitiesintellectual property (IP), in concert with licensing, which was regarded asmuch more straightforward. The ease of handling chemistry IP versus biology IP,because of the more structured andgoal-orientated nature of the work, wasalso noted. Issues relating to confiden-tiality and dissemination of scientificinformation, and obtaining a balancebetween the two, were also discussed.

    Academics at Bristol University felt thatindustry should give greater consider-ation to the funding of postdoctoral sci-entists, who provide real expertise and enhance research productivity, ratherthan the current pattern of supportingthe training of PhD students throughCASE/Collaborative Award schemes.There was a consensus of agreementwith the role that universities should play,in that they should not train students fora particular industrial job (e.g. combina-torial chemistry), but produce studentswith a variety of transferable skills, combined with knowledge in a specificdiscipline, for subsequent training by a company. Industrialists highlighted thata small research project often representsa link into a good research group.

    SummaryIn conclusion, the meeting was viewedpositively by academics, industrialistsand administrators. The scientists gener-ated considerable interest with somepositive follow-up. Above all, it was clearthat Bristol University is working to sup-port the bridge that already spans thegap between academic and industrialpharmacology.