The CQDM is perhaps Canada’s most well-known life science industry-initiated research vehicle, accelerating pre-competitive drug discovery research by bringing big pharma, small biotech and academia around the same table to work together. And through its many partnerships, funding programs and competitions, it has continued to evolve beyond its provincial footprint. This month Biotechnology Focus catches up with Diane Gosselin, CQDM’s president and CEO, to discuss the consortium’s recent string of deals, its strategy going forward and look back at what was very much a year of tremendous growth for the organization.
Biotechnology Focus: It’s been a busy year for you in terms of new partnerships, topped off by the addition of Sanofi Canada to your growing list of pharma members. What makes this new partnership stand out?
Diane Gosselin: It’s really great news for us as they’re the eighth pharma company to join the CQDM, and they carry a lot of clout in Canada as one of the largest investors in innovative biopharmaceutical research in the country. Their strategy also aligns very well with our strategy of “open innovation”– collaborating with partners to accelerate and facilitate drug research. I also believe having them sign on with our consortium and our Explore program validates our model and at the same it also increases the value that we are able to bring to our stakeholders. They’ve already expressed that they are very willing to work and think outside the box to find new ways of partnering with other members of the consortium, really to drive innovation. In the case of Sanofi, the interest to join CQDM was championed by Marc Bonnefoi, the North America Head of R&D who very much supports open innovation. So this partnership, like all our pharma partnerships expands our global footprint. And of course by increasing the number of partners we have, we also increase our leverage in terms of funding and the scope of the types of projects we will be supporting. Lastly, we also benefit from the addition of key scientists at Sanofi take part in our mentorship program.
BF: This wasn’t your only big announcement at the Bio 2014 Convention. CQDM also partnered with the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) in an Explore program initiative, and with the Ontario Brain Institute (OBI) and Brain Canada on a Focus program project. Can you discuss these partnerships and in terms of the latter, the significance of the neuroscience focus?
DG: I will start with our partnership with OBI and Brain Canada. It’s an area where there is a clear unmet medical need. The pharma industry in general is finding it very difficult to develop therapeutics for conditions likes Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s and mental disorders like schizophrenia or depression. We do not understand very well what causes these diseases and one of the major shortcomings in this field is the lack of enabling technologies to make the drug discovery process easier. Thus, from our discussions with our pharma partners it’s a very significant area of interest. Moreover, there are a lot of things we can do in the precompetitive space when it comes to neuroscience. However, we also recognize that we need to have both financial and human resources in order to make what we’re trying to do a reality and that’s why Brain Canada and the Ontario Brian Institute were obvious partners. We are not the experts in neuroscience, but they are. They have the network in place and they are very involved in basic neuroscience research, at the same time they are looking for linkages to pharma to translate that basic research and this is what we offer. It’s a mutually beneficial partnership.
BF: What types of technologies are you hoping will come out of this initiative?
DG: As an example, or thinking on a grand scale, we would like to see an imaging platform that would allow us to identify a patient with Alzheimer’s disease right away, before the patient would get the symptoms. That would be great, because it would then be easy to recruit patients for clinical trials. Right now, the problem is that you need to recruit a lot of patients and discerning who has it and who doesn’t isn’t feasible right now. That is the type of technology we want to see developed, and there are other examples of the types of discovery tools that are very needed in this space. There’s also the whole idea of having targets, i.e. researchers today aren’t even sure we are even targeting the right receptors for Alzheimer’s disease with therapeutics. To develop a tool that can identify these targets could go a long way. And it’s not just Alzheimer’s that we don’t understand; our understanding of neurodegenerative diseases as a whole is very incomplete. I’d like to add a further comment to this initiative and what we’re trying to do. It’s really about leverage, working in collaboration with these partners, we are going to select the projects together, fund the projects together, but most importantly, benefit from the results together.
BF: And with the Ontario Centres of Excellence partnership, can you tell us how it evolved from a pilot project to what it has become today?
DG: This is a good example of an effective partnership. Initially, we worked with OCE in a pilot project under the umbrella of the Québec-Ontario Life Science Corridor. It was a good experience for both sides, and the following year, we approached the OCE to launch a formal program together, the OCE-CQDM challenge. Through these efforts, I think we gained a deeper appreciation for one another, sharing the common goal of changing the game in research. It’s also a big reason why we have OCE joining us in launching the 2014 edition of CQDM’s Explore Program to fund the Ontario arm. This is the first time this program will be open to researchers in Ontario as well as in Quebec, and this really is a unique initiative that fosters highly innovative and unconventional game-changing biopharmaceutical research.
BF: Does it surprise you that they were interested in the Explore program?
DG: Not at all. I think it’s a program that’s very attractive, where you have the potential to dream up big ideas that really have the potential to impact pharmaceutical research. Things that have that ‘wow effect.’ I think that’s a big reason why for example that OCE got involved with us. They were seduced by that concept. The same can be said of Sanofi.
BF: There’s a bit of a pan-Canadian feel to many of these partnerships, where CQDM is moving towards expanding its footprint beyond Quebec. One partnership we haven’t even mentioned is your partnership with CIHR in personalized medicine. It seems indicative of a new direction for your organization?
DG: I wouldn’t say it’s a new direction, but we want to of course develop our network and tap into innovation across Canada. And we have a lot to offer, including access to our pharma partners. As an example, CIHR is funding basic research across Canada, which is great. But what we want, and I think Canada needs, is to be a bit more efficient in turning this basic research into something a bit more tangible, or put more clearly, translational. CIHR sees a great deal of value in working closely with the pharma industry, and that’s why they want to work with CQDM. On the topic of pan-Canadian expansion, this started with the partnership with CIHR and really has continued with Brain Canada and OBI). So, you can say we have moved from a provincial/regional model to national one.