by Howard Johnson
Marc Tessier-Lavigne was elected the tenth president of The Rockefeller University by its Board of Trustees, following an international search. He began in March, 2011.
A world leader in the study of brain development, Marc has pioneered the identification of molecules that direct the formation of connections among nerve cells to establish neuronal circuits in the mammalian brain and spinal cord. The mechanisms he has identified are important for understanding how the human brain forms during normal development, and are increasingly being implicated in a variety of other processes, including vascular patterning and axonal regeneration following spinal cord injury, as well as neurodegeneration such as that seen in Alzheimer’s disease.
A native of Trenton, Canada, Marc obtained his Ph.D. from University College London and performed postdoctoral work at UCL and at Columbia University. He has been on the faculty of the University of California, San Francisco and Stanford University and has been a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. In 2003, Marc joined Genentech, one of the world’s leading biotech companies, where he oversaw 1,400 people in disease research and drug discovery as executive vice president and chief scientific officer.
He is the recipient of numerous scientific awards and is an elected member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the Royal Societies of the U.K. and Canada.
The Rockefeller University recently joined forces with Weill Cornell Medical College and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to form the Tri-Institutional Therapeutics Discovery Institute (Tri-I TDI), a pioneering institute designed to expedite early-stage drug discovery into innovative treatments and therapies for patients. This novel partnership of three leading academic institutions was made possible by two significant philanthropic grants, $15 million from Lewis and Ali Sanders, and $5 million from Howard and Abby Milstein. A significant component of Tri-I TDI will be its partnerships with private sector pharmaceutical and biotech companies; the institute’s first industrial partnership, Takeda Pharmaceuticals, will focus on the development of small molecule drugs.
I recently asked Marc a few questions about Tri-I TDI and of potential importance to New York City bioscience entrepreneurs.
1. Can you tell us why The Rockefeller University joined in the creation of Tri-I TDI?
The Tri-I TDI fits perfectly with our mission, which is to conduct science for the benefit of humanity, including making discoveries that can cure or change the course of human disease. In fact, all three institutions have in common the mission to do transformative research that can lead to applications in new patient therapies. However, the translation of research findings into medical treatments is a complex and arduous task. Over the last several decades, both the public and the private sectors have learned a lot about where to place our efforts to have the best chance of success in finding new therapies. We see Tri-I TDI as a way to enable our faculty at Rockefeller to find success, to better understand the biological targets involved in disease conditions, and then to better interrogate the biology of these targets to make new drugs. This can at least in part be accomplished by the economies of scale created by the new institute.
2. Can you tell us more about how it came about?
Carl Nathan from Weill Cornell, David Scheinberg from Memorial Sloan-Kettering and Barry Coller at Rockefeller led the initial efforts, which began with fact-finding missions both within our own institutions and at other institutions to see what can be done to facilitate and accelerate the translation of research findings. This led to the idea of creating an institute that would have a series of parallel programs focused on specific drug discovery modalities, starting with small molecules and later expanding into antibodies and beyond. We also all recognized that collaborating with the private sector could be very powerful if done right, and we are thrilled to be able to create Tri-I TDI’s first partnership with Takeda, specifically to develop small molecule drugs.
3. Is each partner contributing something different?
There’s a lot of overlap in our collective research efforts but the center of gravity is somewhat different for each of us. For example, Sloan Kettering is known for its focus on cancer, while Rockefeller and Weill-Cornell are also interested in cancer, but are equally active in many other areas, like immune disorders, infectious diseases and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
4. How will the institute actually work in practice?
Faculty from each institution will submit proposals to Tri-I TDI much as they do when they apply for grants. We will have a scientific review board with representatives from each institution, Takeda and external members that will review these proposals and select the projects based on merit. The institute will also have an educational mission, and will provide faculty with feedback on their proposals and encourage them to refine, improve and resubmit them.
5. Based on your experience in industry at Genentech, what criteria lead to the most successful partnerships, especially where academia and the private sector are getting together?
For a collaborative structure to have the best chance of success, it has to be designed as a true “win-win” for both partners, without one party being favored over the other in the terms of the relationship. If you achieve that, people on both sides will find benefit, and the collaboration will be a success. In particular, the values of all parties have to be respected. For example, for academics, we need to be able to publish, to be able to advance our scientific mission, and to be open about what is discovered. From the company’s perspective, the key attribute to a lasting partnership is that it has substantially increased its chances of success in developing new medical therapies that will make a difference to patients. If agreements are structured with clarity regarding the invention rights and the disclosure rights, this helps a lot. Where problems have developed in past partnerships, it is often because these rights have favored one party or the other, for example, when compounds were developed, but then the company terminated the relationship for internal reasons and the academics were restricted from continuing to work on the findings. Successful partnerships require that the termination provisions allow for each side to continue to pursue its mission and stay true to its values. That’s just one example of the many considerations that are needed to ensure productive collaborations. It’s all about clarity, transparency and mutual respect.
6. In our current time of scarce resources for the pursuit of basic medical research and its translation into new medical therapies, are efforts like Tri-I TDI the answer to increasing productivity, to do more with less?
Tri-I TDI will enable our scientists to take their work much further by providing the infrastructure and the partnerships with industry that will enable them to move their discoveries towards the clinic more efficiently and effectively. Academia’s strength is principally in basic research – understanding the molecular basis of health and disease. Industry’s strength is in translating those research discoveries into therapies and cures, but often industry isn’t adequately plugged into the advances being made in academia –
and the academics don’t know how to go about translating their results. Tri-I TDI will bridge these two cultures, bringing together the best of both worlds.