The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) has joined with Johnson & Johnson (J&J) Innovation Center and other partners to launch a new drug discovery effort designed to translate early-stage biomedical research projects into new treatments.
The center is the early-stage R&D collaboration arm of Johnson & Johnson, the first of several biopharmas expected to join the initiative, called Scripps Advance. The biopharmas will be joined primarily by academic labs and other research institutions seeking to develop and commercialize promising technologies, both from TSRI and external partners.
“We want to work in a scout and matchmaking capability with Scripps Advance and then potentially those projects that are of interest. We would consider providing seed funding to found early-stage drug discovery companies,” Thorsten Melcher, Ph.D., senior director, new ventures and partnerships with the J&J Innovation Center in California, told GEN.
Like J&J’s innovation centers, Scripps Advance aims to help biopharma companies develop drugs at a time when traditional venture financing has dried up for startups, while corporate giants scramble to find less costly and more productive alternatives to traditional in-house R&D.
“We’re very eager to fill that void by collaborating with academic institutions at a much earlier stage than we used to engage in those collaborations,” Dr. Melcher said. “What we can provide to those collaborations is not only the resources and the capital to make them successful, but, equally if not more important, our expertise in generating drugs.”
He said the centers are designed to give researchers and entrepreneurs the opportunity to forge relationships with J&J that include mentoring, insights on development opportunities, collaborations with and without licensing rights, financing via Johnson & Johnson Development Corp. and/or outside firms, and incubation via Janssen Labs, which has sites in San Diego, San Francisco, and Boston. The innovation centers work with startups from idea through clinical proof of concept.
Dr. Melcher and Scott Forrest, TSRI's vice president of business development, told GEN J&J Innovation and the institute will discuss potential projects, focusing on those offering the greatest potential for success. An important criterion, both said, was compatibility with their therapeutic areas. J&J’s areas—cardiovascular and metabolic, immunology, infectious disease, neuroscience disorders, and oncology—overlap with many of TSRI’s research strengths.
“When we think of Advance, we think of a way for pharma, with a broader reach and much more active participation in project selection, to externalize small pieces of their early-stage internal pipeline. Which pieces does pharma typically like to offer up for that? The riskiest, sometimes the newest or most cutting-edge,” Forrest said.
A couple of undisclosed large pharmas are in “fairly late stages of discussion” for partnering with Scripps Advance, Forrest said: “Our hope is for three to four companies to participate in similar ways to J&J.”
Forrest said Scripps Advance differs from past translation efforts by inviting research partners from outside TSRI, and reviewing projects before committing financing and other resources. Scripps Advance has joined venture capital firm Atlas Ventures to launch Padlock Therapeutics, which discovers novel autoimmune therapeutics targeting an emerging class of epigenetic modulators, protein arginine deiminases (PADs). Padlock’s technology was developed in the laboratories of TSRI investigators Paul Thompson, Ph.D., and Kerri Mowen, Ph.D., with Scripps Florida’s high-throughput screening facility.
Scripps Advance comes almost a year after TSRI and J&J’s Janssen Pharmaceuticals began a five-year research collaboration in infectious disease, with an initial project in influenza. Janssen obtained license rights in return for contributing research assistance through its Crucell Vaccine Institute. That effort continues, Melcher said, as do earlier TSRI-Janssen partnerships.
“Advanced was the product of about three years of internal planning,” Forrest recalled. “Three years ago was not a good timing for a vehicle like this. As the circumstances in early-stage financing eventually caught up to our idea, we started to gain some traction.”
By the time Todd Huffman, Ph.D., TSRI’s director of drug discovery partnerships, contacted Melcher to pitch the idea of an alternative drug development vehicle, J&J was planning its own alternatives—the “Innovation Centers” that opened last year in London, Boston, and Menlo Park, CA (with a satellite office in La Jolla, CA). A fourth will open later this year in Shanghai.
“Our call came at the right time. We started talking,” Forrest said. “From the very beginning, they were great to work with, and most importantly, they maintained this very close tie with the therapeutic area leadership. As the business development idea gained steam, Todd and Thorsten could immediately pivot into a discussion about what technologies might make sense. Once we got excited about technologies, they were what really allowed this deal to be consummated.”