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Catalyzing Decisions in Pharma-Biotech Collaborations

Posted on March 4th, 2016 by in Pharma R&D


Despite large strides in technological and scientific progress, the cost to develop and release a new drug has escalated dramatically (1). At the same time, the number of generic drugs has grown in the last decade (2). In the U.S., 70% of prescribed drugs are generics. Under mounting pressure to increase return on investment for Research & Development projects, Pharmaceutical companies have turned to external partners for specialized knowledge and services. This is especially the case for early stage development, where a broader innovation approach that draws upon diverse expertise can help edge high-risk investment. A 2014 report shows that the majority of projected drug pipeline revenues come from external sources of innovation (3).

Today’s drug targets tend to be difficult molecules (e.g., membrane or multi-subunit proteins) that require dedicated, complex research techniques. Furthermore, it is increasingly clear that effective treatment of many diseases requires a multi-target approach (see Big Data, Wider Mindset).  A number of biotech companies specializing in difficult targets using proprietary methods have emerged on the market. Typically small to mid-sized organizations, they have the freedom and flexibility to quickly adapt their methods to a given task or, if necessary, implement novel and better suited techniques. Pharmaceutical companies capitalize on this expertise and agility to carry out research projects that build on know-how that is not internally available or would require large time and financial investment to conduct internally.

A pharmaceutical company might engage one or several biotech service providers to address all relevant aspects of a project. Alternatively, the company may explore several competing techniques to find the most applicable one for a given scientific question. Regardless of approach, biotech partners are charged with the thorough evaluation of targets or compounds and their results contribute to the decision to pursue or cancel a drug development project (4).

Despite a mutually beneficial arrangement, there is often resistance from the Pharmaceutical company to give up control of projects coupled to the fear of getting poor data in return (4). Furthermore, the exchange of information between both partners can be hampered by data security issues, as well as incompatible data formats and research tools. It is clear that in addition to technical knowledge, the success of a particular project depends on efficient communication between the people involved and clearly laid out responsibilities for each role.

Efficient communication is key

The way in which information is shared plays a key role in streamlining collaborations. Having a dedicated person as the point of contact for each partner (pharmaceutical client, one or several biotech service providers) goes a long way to ensure information flow. This person funnels information to all stakeholders within their organization and facilitates internal decisions. The information this person handles includes scientific knowledge, scope of project, technical and organizational limitations, as well as strategic and financial constraints.

When information feeds into a project is also critical. At the start of a project, the commissioning Pharmaceutical company should define precisely the scope of the work to be outsourced. The type and quantity of data, material, and other deliverables must also be clearly outlined by the Pharmaceutical client to ensure that the Biotech partner can meet expectations. There are no standard data types or established guidelines for the technologies to be used in a project, so incomplete or untimely information can lead to bottlenecks at the most basic level of a collaborative arrangement.

Access to as many details as possible — e.g., for a protein target: size, location, interactions, known drugs, etc. — helps the Biotech partner appropriately allocate staff, equipment and consumables. Timelines and critical steps are more easily planned if detailed information is available upfront. Such decisions can have a strong financial impact. In extreme situations, an incomplete information base can seriously affect the economic situation of a biotech company. Furthermore, a thorough and open information exchange, perhaps even use of common databases by all partners, can not only promote the success of individual projects, but also lead to a long-term collaboration.

Despite all capabilities and efforts from both parties, early stage drug development remains a scientific endeavor, with constant risk of failure. Thus, as a project evolves, review points must be integrated into an action plan where results are discussed and decisions about continuing, modifying or even cancelling a project are made. Delaying such decisions is a common source of failure and dissatisfaction on both sides.

The Biotech partner, conversely, carries the responsibility to prepare comprehensive reports that explain the current status of experimental results and serve as basis for decisions by the Pharmaceutical partner. “Talking the same language” and using the same solutions for background information catalyze the exchange between both sides and ensures that the time between delivery of a project report and feedback turnaround remains short, thereby avoiding delays and downtime of assigned resources on both sides.

In summary, effective communication channels, as well as clear and easy information exchange are a key investment for both partners in building successful Pharma-Biotech collaborations.

  1. Spending of the U.S. pharmaceutical industry on research and development at home and abroad from 1990 to 2014 (in million U.S. dollars). (Accessed 8 May 2015)
  2. Mignani, S., Huber, S., Tomás, H., Rodrigues, J. and Majoral, J.-P. 2016. Why and how have drug discovery strategies in pharma changed? What are the new mindsets? Drug Discovery Today, 21: 239.
  3. Deloitte report: Measuring the return from pharmaceutical innovation 2014. Turning a corner?


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