Alzheimer’s disease has proven to be stubbornly difficult to diagnose and treat with six million individuals in the United States now estimated to suffer from it or a similar form of dementia.
The problem could only get worse in the next few decades as the rates of those affected and the cost of care are both projected to skyrocket.
Could a new research model that convenes stakeholders from academia, industry and the state government help drive new discoveries?
That’s the premise of the Massachusetts Center for Alzheimer Therapeutic Science (MassCATS), a new research center that connects investigators from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and other leading academic institutions with representatives from five leading pharmaceutical companies—AbbVie, Biogen, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Merck and Sunovion Pharmaceuticals.
The five industry partners have contributed $1.2 million in funding to support new research efforts aimed at identifying early biomarkers of the disease. The center was formed in collaboration with the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, a state agency that supports life sciences innovation, research, development and commercialization.
“We want to build a community where pharma and academic researchers come together,” says center Director Bradley Hyman, MD, PhD. “Alzheimer’s disease is an enormous problem. We’ll go bankrupt if we don’t figure it out.”
Hyman is director of the Alzheimer’s Research Center at MGH and professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, where he has spent nearly three decades researching the disease.
A Collaborative Project Model
MassCATS project teams are comprised of academic and industry scientists working together to share knowledge and resources in a pre-competitive space.
Projects are nominated by academic and industrial scientists, reviewed by panel with equal representation of academic and industrial colleagues. “Getting everyone in one room several times a year has opened new collaborations and led to information sharing,” says Dr. Hyman. “We all have the goal to develop novel therapeutic strategies.”
Industry partners provide reagents, chemical expertise and special purpose compounds while academic leads are developing testing platforms that can be shared across the consortium.
The collaboration has also led to the development of the Alzheimer Data Lens, a web-based repository of publicly available raw data related to Alzheimer’s disease that is easily accessible for bench scientists through the application of cutting-edge graphical interfaces.
A New Engine for Discovery
The combined resources and shared experience of the investigators and industry partners at MassCATS could help to speed the discovery of new treatment or preventative strategies.
“The center brings together industry with some of the best academic investigators in the world that are here locally,” says Nelson Medeiros, PhD, Senior Licensing Manager for Neurology and Neurosurgery for the Partners Innovation team.
“It’s interesting to see how pharma has their perspective and how the investigators approach it from their perspective,” Medeiros adds. “It’s the combination of both that result in much better projects that are kept on the translational path.”
Medeiros credits Dr. Hyman for setting the tone and reaching out to similar minded investigators who are very interested in getting feedback from industry partners.
“Everybody wants to share information to the extent that they can,” Medeiros says. “What I see is open discussion between the companies and investigators to discuss the merits of projects and how to improve them, what the next steps should be and how to move on if a certain proof of concept is not achieved.”
“The companies learn from each other about what has and hasn’t worked for them in the past, so I see multiple instances where effort is saved and mistakes are averted.”
Opportunities for Future Growth
The success of the MassCATS initiative suggests that the collaborative model could work for other research areas as well, Medeiros says.
“I think neuroscience and neurodegenerative diseases are an area of strength for MGH, but this is a model that we can see being replicated in other therapeutic areas.”
“The program has been very successful on multiple fronts,” adds Hyman. “It has jumpstarted numerous projects through funding and providing access to in-kind materials to pursue novel approaches that would not be easily funded from NIH and would be deemed too immature or risky to be supported within the pharmaceutical industry.”
MassCATS projects have also launched two additional academic-industrial collaborations and several successful NIH grants, Hyman says. “In many ways, we are showing that working together we can be faster and more successful than working alone.”