The creation of discovery partnerships between pharmaceutical companies and groups such as research organisations, biotech firms and academia is an important part of the industry, paving the way for the development of new drugs and the delivery of more effective treatments.
It is a complex and demanding area, requiring a combination of innovation, investment and efficient collaboration.
Challenges to Early-Stage Development
The earliest stages of new drug discovery can often be the most difficult to navigate, owing to the exhaustive and rigorous nature of the tests that must be completed before development can continue.
One of the first challenges is target identification, which requires researchers to select a biochemical mechanism involved in a particular disease condition. Candidate drugs are then thoroughly screened to check their interaction with the target. Further validation and review is conducted before lead compounds are chosen for possible clinical development.
This is all part of a very expensive process, with a recent BBC Radio 4 report noting that it can cost about $1bn and take up to 15 years to bring a new medicine to market.
The report, which asked whether the end is in sight for drug discovery, highlighted another significant challenge to the development process - bacterial resistance to antibiotics. The rapid evolution of bacteria has raised fears over the emergence of widespread infections with no cure, placing more responsibility on drug developers to come up with a quick response to changing threats.
Furthermore, the world's ageing population means more instances of neurological conditions such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, cures and treatments for which have proven notoriously elusive for pharmaceutical manufacturers and researchers.
The difficulties inherent in drug discovery have led to some interesting new collaborations designed to overcome escalating challenges. Partnerships span international borders and unite organisations from the public and private sectors.
May 2012 saw the launch of an innovative approach to antibiotic research in Europe, through which pharmaceutical and biotech firms will work with public partners to address the problem of antibiotic resistance and tackle the obstacles facing the development of effective drugs.
The research programme is supported by Europe's largest public-private association, the Innovative Medicines Initiative, and involves pharmaceutical giants including GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), AstraZeneca, Janssen and Sanofi.
One of the most significant aspects of the venture, according to the groups involved, is information sharing on an unprecedented level.
GSK is also innovating in this area with its Discovery Partnerships with Academia programme, which the company describes as a "new approach to early drug discovery."
The aim is to combine the insight and creativity of academic institutions with GSK's drug discovery expertise, to eventually deliver new medicines for the benefit of patients.
What Does the Future Hold?
Pharmaceutical companies undoubtedly face challenges in terms of drug discovery, but there is also cause for optimism.
According to Patrick Vallance, president of pharmaceuticals research and development at GSK, one of the industry's responses to this problem has been more openness and collaboration.
For instance, GSK has released into the public domain 13,500 molecular structures with the potential to kill malaria.
"Why not let everyone have a look at those compounds and see if they can think of something smarter than we are doing, and see if they can group them in a certain way or spot a pattern we have missed?" said Vallance, speaking to the BBC.
However, the nature of competition in the industry means drug discovery will continue to be hampered by duplication, whereby companies waste time and resources focusing on targets that have already been examined and abandoned by competitors, which may not have published their findings.
In response to this problem, some groups, such as the one led by Chas Bountra, professor of translational medicine at Oxford University, have committed to declaring all of their research conclusions, regardless of success or failure.
Another concept that could play a significant part in the future of new drug development is personalised medicine, the antithesis of 'blockbuster' pharmaceuticals produced for mass consumption.
Paul Workman of the Institute of Cancer Research said recent findings endorse a more personalised approach, with gene tests being used to determine which drugs would benefit particular patients.
"A relatively small number of patients will benefit, but they will benefit extremely well," said Workman.
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