OSUCCC – James DDI: An Industry Approach to Creating Cancer-Fighting Drugs

When Timothy R. Wright retired in 2011 after a nearly 30- year career in pharmaceuticals—including over a decade as president and CEO of major global corporations—he wanted to use his immense experience in pharmaceuticals to do something meaningful.

Wright approached Michael A. Caligiuri, MD, director of Ohio State’s Comprehensive Cancer Center and CEO of the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James) —whom he had met through Pelotonia— with an idea. During his time with big pharmaceutical companies, Wright had seen how hard the companies worked to find solutions for cancer. He wanted to help Ohio State, his beloved alma mater, to become more like its own pharmaceutical company. He wanted to accelerate drugs for patients and create a new model for collaboration with academia and industry.

Caligiuri liked Wright’s plan, and Ohio State’s Drug Discovery Institute (DDI) was born shortly after, with Wright at the helm and an ambitious agenda to make the university’s drug discovery processes more efficient and effective so that Ohio State-discovered drugs could more quickly get into the hands of cancer patients.

Wright attributes the DDI’s great potential for success to the immense breadth and depth of talent and interdisciplinary collaboration at Ohio State, an excellent environment for the full spectrum of drug development.

“Drug development is a long process, taking between 10-15 years,” explains Wright. “And it takes a village of multidisciplinary experts to develop a drug.”

While the DDI is embedded within the OSUCCC – James, a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated comprehensive cancer center that conducts phase I and II clinical trials, other Ohio State experts in biology and chemistry, pharmacy and engineering, medicine and veterinary medicine, business and more, also are essential to the institute’s success.

Noting the recent addition of a medicinal chemist, biologist, pharmacologist and a physiologist with expertise in project management to the DDI team, Wright jokes that he is “the dumbest person in the room.” No stranger to difficult disciplines—his degrees are in chemistry and finance—Wright has a good-natured attitude that is undoubtedly an asset in facing the daunting challenges presented by the drug-discovery process.

Another advantage for the DDI is the College of Pharmacy, which has been a natural partner and important connection since the DDI’s inception. Says Cynthia Carnes, PharmD, PhD, associate dean for graduate and research studies at the college, “The DDI has brought to campus real-world pharmaceutical company expertise. They are helping us move our discoveries forward in a smart manner while providing a great educational experience for our graduate students.”

The involvement of Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business’ Technology Entrepreneurship and Commercialization Institute has also played an integral role, providing strategic analyses of pharmaceutical markets that help the DDI determine early on whether to invest in a particular idea.

Rather than simply licensing a drug to a company—which has been the historical precedent—the idea behind the DDI is “to use our own money in combination with federal money to mature the data and build a stronger intellectual property. Then, when it is time to talk to a pharmaceutical company,” says Wright, “the university can get more value for its work.

“The idea is to create a self-sustaining mechanism for cancer research,” he adds. “Our patients deserve it, and our faculty deserve to be successful and recognized as well as rewarded for the ideas. There’s no downside. Everybody wins.”

From the beginning, donor investment has been a critical facet of the DDI. A multi-million-dollar gift from the Harry T. Mangurian, Jr. Foundation, given to facilitate the partnership between Fisher College of Business and the DDI, provided seed funding that helped to accelerate the formation of the institute.

“Philanthropic investment in the DDI provides a donor with a very structured, targeted, results-oriented application of the donor’s money,” Wright says. “Donors can be part of making the DDI successful, just as the Mangurian Foundation was incredibly helpful for getting this started.”

In the future, Wright anticipates scaling the DDI so that it is even better positioned to facilitate drug development, scaling across more therapeutic areas and involving more colleges. For now, they are working closely with the College of Pharmacy to jump-start the effort.

“When you want to do drug development at Ohio State, you have enabling resources and a strong commitment,” says Wright. “All of this leads to a better probability of being successful in creating cancer-fighting drugs.”

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