Why Can't We Join Forces on All Diseases Like We Do on Coronavirus? | Opinion

When coronavirus researchers at the University of Pittsburgh recently made a promising discovery, they shared their findings on a World Health Organization conference call within two hours.

And they're not alone. Coronavirus researchers around the world are quickly sharing findings via online repositories. That's part of the reason the COVID vaccine race is progressing so quickly. Just last month, drug firm Moderna released data showing its vaccine candidate spurs an immune response against COVID-19.

Unfortunately, this widespread collaboration isn't the norm for other diseases. It often takes years—or even decades—to turn an academic discovery into a tangible treatment. That's largely because university scientists aren't incentivized to share their initial research with pharmaceutical companies. And drug firms are reluctant to publicize their propriety research.

Foundations like mine are uniquely positioned to bridge the gap between academic discoveries and lifesaving treatments. We know it shouldn't take a pandemic to bring cures to patients.

I first learned of the disconnect between academics and drug companies in 2008. Back then, I was working for a pharmaceutical firm in Italy. And my job was to discover new treatments for glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer.

Imagine my excitement when, that year, researchers published a landmark paper identifying mechanisms that drive glioblastoma growth and invasion. At the time, I naively thought these discoveries would quickly lead to powerful new drugs.

They didn't. In fact, 12 years later, glioblastoma patients are still mainly treated with the same drug they relied on in 2008. The typical patient still dies in just over a year.

My experience is regrettably common. Academics simply aren't incentivized to speed their data to the firms that are capable of turning research breakthroughs into marketable medicines.

Their reluctance is understandable. In academia, researchers' entire careers depend on publishing novel findings in prestigious journals. Publication determines grant funding and promotions.

As a result, academics keep groundbreaking findings secret until peer-reviewed journals publish their work. After submission, peer-review takes an average of four months, according to a study from Radboud University researchers. The entire publishing process, from writing and internal review to journal submission and edits, can take years.

Academics' research also often involves preclinical models—including testing on cells, organ cultures, mice, and other animals—which aim to predict how certain treatments will fare against particular diseases. Drug makers need these models to bring their drugs to clinical trials. Academia's reluctance to share or even license preclinical disease models also stalls the drug development process.

Pharmaceutical firms aren't blameless either. They frequently keep their own research under wraps out of fear their rivals could steal their intellectual property.

This lack of information-sharing actively stalls cures. In the case of glioblastoma, many pharmaceutical firms are still using obsolete preclinical models, even though more powerful alternatives exist. That's partly why progress towards new treatments has been maddeningly slow.

Non-profit foundations can break this logjam by serving as a neutral partner in drug development. We're well-positioned to promote a high sense of urgency and push both academia and industry partners out of their comfort zones.

Consider the Neurofibromatosis Preclinical Consortium and Synodos. The NFPC brought together experts from industry and academia to identify the best drug candidates for neurofibromatosis, a rare condition in which tumors form on nerve tissue. Synodos unites a global team of patients, researchers, and clinicians to share data on neurofibromatosis cures. My organization sponsors a team of data scientists at Sage Bionetworks who integrate the data, turning vast amounts of information into usable knowledge.

These partnerships are already working. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first-ever treatment for neurofibromatosis. The new drug could benefit over 2.5 million patients.

Of course, foundations can't solve the problem without policymakers. The federal government could require scientists who receive public funding to share their preclinical models. In return, pharmaceutical firms would pay researchers a licensing fee, just as they do when a patented technology is licensed from a university.

Patients must also speak up, just as the HIV/AIDS community has already done. These patients successfully advocated for closer collaboration between industry and academia. Thanks to such pressure, in 2015, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the drug firm GlaxoSmithKline announced a new HIV Cure center, a joint venture devoted to ending the disease.

It's great to see the academic world collaborating to fight COVID-19. But this information-sharing should be the rule, not the exception.

Annette Bakker, PhD is president of the Children's Tumor Foundation.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.