16 Sep 2009   |   News

IMI launches €156M call as it gains autonomous status

The €2 million Innovative Medicines initiative, set up to restore the competitive position of Europe’s pharma sector, has entered its second phase.

Michel Goldman, the new Executive Director of the IMI: strengthening bridges between academia and industry.

The €2 billion Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) moved into a new phase this week, as it launched a €156 million second call for research proposals and took its first steps as an autonomous body.

A new Executive Director, Michel Goldman picked up the reins yesterday, (16 September), with a brief to steer the public–private partnership in its attempts to make Europe a more attractive place to carry out pharmaceutical R&D and end the industry’s productivity and innovation crisis.

Speaking at a meeting in Brussels on Monday, held to discuss the second call of nine topics in the fields of inflammatory and infectious diseases and cancer, Goldman said his first priority will be to, “strengthen the bridges between academia and industry in the interest of patients.”

The topics in the IMI’s 2nd call for proposals

1. Imaging biomarkers for anticancer drug development.

2. New tools for target validation to improve drug efficacy in oncology.

3. Molecular biomarkers: accelerating cancer therapy development and refining patient care.

4. Identification and development of rapid point-of-care diagnostic tests for bacterial infections, to facilitate conduct of clinical trials and clinical practice.

5.  Understanding aberrant adaptive immunity mechanisms.

6. Translational research in chronic immune-mediated disease: bridging between animal models and humans.

7. Drug/disease modelling: library & framework.

8. Open pharmacological space.

9. Electronic Health Records.

“IMI has the potential to fulfil its ambition,” Goldman, professor of immunology at the Université Libre de Bruxelles’ Faculty of Medicine, told the meeting. It is “the best, if not the only, path” to overcome current problems in drug development and the flight of pharma industry R&D out of Europe.

“At some point we’re all going to need access to innovative medicines,” said Arthur Higgins, President of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA), whose members are committing €1 billion in resources to match the €1 billion cash that the Commission is putting into IMI.

Higgins, CEO of Bayer HealthCare, emphasised that the current economic downturn is no time to cut back on innovation. Instead, the public and private sectors need to join forces, face up to the innovation crisis and tackle the challenges of stagnating productivity and the rising costs of developing new medicines. “Investing in health is investing in our future,” he said.

Focus on process

The aim of IMI is not to develop specific new medicines, but rather to create better methods and tools and improve the drug development process. EU Commissioner for Science and Research Janez Potočnik said IMI would help to ensure fundamental research can be rapidly translated into new treatments. “We should see results from this exciting new research mechanism very soon,” he promised.

This goal is reflected in the topics the IMI board has chosen for the second call for proposals. For example, one aim is to develop imaging biomarkers that can be used in early diagnosis of tumours and to monitor the efficacy of drugs in clinical trials. Similarly, a project in immune diseases will discover new targets and biomarkers for testing safety and efficacy of treatments for rheumatoid arthritis and other chronic immune-mediated diseases.

When it was launched at the end of 2007, IMI was a step into the unknown. No previous public-private partnership has had the same scope and scale in terms of the number of companies and countries involved, the size of the budget, or the ambitions it set itself.

Alain Vanvossel, IMI’s retiring interim executive director, described being forced to “start from scratch” because there was role model to mirror the legal, administrative or scientific complexities of the project. Differences in attitudes between the public and private sectors had to be overcome, he said. Other speakers at the meeting also referred to the bureaucratic barriers that had to be surmounted.

A couple of years in, and the initiative seems to be settling into its stride: research has begun on some of the projects approved under the first call for proposals in November 2008, while becoming an autonomous body free of both the Commission and EFPIA, means that in future IMI will control its own budget.

Track record

Although an active researcher, Goldman has a track record in running public-private partnerships. In 2004 he was appointed director of the Institute for Medical Immunology, the first research institution based on a public–private partnership in Wallonia, Belgium. Then in 2006, he was became vice-president of the BioWin Health Cluster, set up by the government of the Walloon Region to foster partnerships between industries and academic institutions.

Partnerships are key to bringing about the major scientific advances needed to speed up the discovery and development of better medicines, according to Jonathan Knowles, a member of IMI’s governing board and a senior researcher at Roche. “The future of medicine requires this skill of seeking a common perspective,” he said.

IMI’s budget runs from 2008 to 2013, with a follow-up phase until 2017. What happens after that depends to a large extent on how successful it is during this period.

“Let’s prove that it is successful and then the question of long-term sustainability won’t exist any more,” said Commissioner Potočnik.

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