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US, drugmakers, foundations partner for meds

TRENTON, New Jersey--The U.S. National Institutes of Health and numerous biopharmaceutical companies and disease foundations have teamed up on an unusual project to find and bring new medicines to patients faster.

The Accelerating Medicines Partnership, announced Tuesday, will focus on the early part of drug research: identifying biological targets present in a disease, such as abnormal genes or particular proteins. This initial phase of drug discovery — learning how a disease begins and progresses to then find a vulnerable spot at which to attack it — is rarely competitive, unlike the race among drugmakers to test their experimental drugs in patients and be the first in a category to get theirs on the market.

The public-private partnership will aim to develop new diagnostic tests and therapies focused on such biologic targets, but more quickly and at a lower cost than today's typical drug development.

Industry sources say about 95 percent of experimental drugs fail and that it takes a couple of decades and more than US$1 billion to get a new drug tested, approved and on the market. That limits the number of possible new drugs that traditional and biologic drugmakers can try to develop and, more importantly, means that patients without good options wait longer for the treatment they need and may die prematurely.

Over the last decade or so, it's become common for drugmakers working in the same field to partner on developing a particular drug to split the enormous cost and the risk of failure. Drugmakers also collaborate more with university researchers, and pharmaceutical companies in recent years have announced a few projects within the industry to speed up the front end of research.

The new collaboration involves more players from different fields, though, particularly the prestigious NIH, which already funds much of the basic science research that eventually results in new medicines and diagnostic tests. Other partners include drug industry leaders Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer Inc. and Merck & Co., and foundations that advocate for more research and assist patients, including the American Diabetes Association and the Alzheimer's Association.

The partnership will start with three- to five-year pilot projects on Alzheimer's disease, type 2 diabetes and autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

The partnership has a modest budget of US$230 million over the first five years, with the NIH paying just over half of that and the rest coming from industry. About US$130 million will go for projects on Alzheimer's disease, the mind-robbing progressive disorder for which there currently are no medicines except ones that temporarily ease symptoms.

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