18 Jun 2014   |   Viewpoint

View from Poland: Research funding agencies should invest for innovation

The EU-funded BASTION project aims to build relationships between science and industry and promote the translation of cancer research into new treatments. A number of obstacles must be removed before true collaboration can flourish

At a recent meeting, top Polish medical scientists and biotech companies gathered to discuss how to stimulate translational research in oncology and enhance cooperation between science and industry. The event was organised by the Medical University of Warsaw and BASTION, a multidisciplinary science project which aims to reduce the time from scientific discovery to clinical application.

At the event, Science|Business asked BASTION Group Leader Zbigniew Gaciong, Head of Internal Medicine, Hypertension and Vascular Diseases at the Medical University of Warsaw for his views on how industry-academic collaboration is progressing.

Q: Do you think that Polish scientists fear to collaborate with industry?

A: There is a well-known and well described association between pharmaceutical companies and the academic community and nowadays I think this relationship follows strict rules in terms of funding, reimbursement, and so on. But some people hark back the same old story of how pharmaceutical companies manipulate physicians to write prescriptions for their drugs.

This is nonsense because we are talking about collaborations that may be fruitful for both sides. There is a win-win situation and we all know that the industry cannot function by itself. They need an influx from external associates, mostly from universities. When you look at countries like the US – on the campus of Harvard University you have buildings of Merck, Sharp & Dohme (MSD), Astra Zeneca and the Sandoz Institute. But in countries like Poland people think that collaboration between academia and the industry leads to bribing physicians to write prescriptions.

Of course, this is a sell-buy situation: you want to buy with a low price and sell with a high price. Indeed, pharmaceutical companies can buy IP from Polish universities at a very low price – but this is where negotiations should come in. Maybe scientists and researchers are not the most appropriate people to deal with the industry. Universities need specialised services that deal with IP and commercialisation, and that protect the interests of the university and of the scientists.

Q: Why do you think that for big pharmaceutical companies, Poland is not the favourite place to invest in research?

A: Our local companies invest in the country but because they are generic companies, they are not looking for new molecules so they fund simple studies like bio availability, some chemical studies on molecules, and clinical studies on synthesis of molecules and so on.

But I agree that big pharmaceutical companies are not interested in investing in Poland for a very simple reason: big companies consider the investment as a part of the offset. They simply say they can return 2 to 5 per cent of their profits as investment in local R&D.

These companies want something in return and I think they cannot be blamed for that. For example, MSD was about to open research lab in Poland and the talks were in an advanced stage and local people from MSD were working very hard to finalise the deal, but eventually they got a very straight-forward response: if the investment policy on the MSD programmes was not changed, then there would be no investment. Business, as they say, has no feelings.

Q: Could smart specialisation help to improve translational research?

A: I think it’s a great idea. Of course it also has a danger: you can be too specialised and go into a cul de sac. But I think that if we could concentrate on some specific areas, in the same way as big pharma does – after all companies do not have drugs for everything. Usually they have some divisions that specialise in certain areas.

We’re relatively a big country and we have a lot of everything. At the moment Poland should definitely specialise in doing research and drug development for cancer and infectious diseases. But maybe we should also look at common medical problems, such as arteriosclerosis.

Q: How would you evaluate the quality of projects funded by the Polish government?

A: A lot of state-funded projects are not innovative enough:  I think that the process of reviewing proposals should be different and the reviewers should take more responsibility. When you base your decisions only on reviewers you have to realise that in a country like Poland we have very few researchers who are experts in their respective fields. So, when you write a proposal there are three options: it will be reviewed by your friend, by your enemy or by [someone who is] ignorant. None of these options are good.

The reviewing process has to change. I am quite convinced that this can be done by people from the National Centre for Research and Development. They could go over the projects and evaluate the potential for innovation because many reviewers are not very well prepared and they don’t have enough knowledge to figure out whether the projects they review have any commercial potential.

It is easy to assess the scientific value of a project, or its originality, but you will need specialised people to spot innovative projects. Of course, spotting innovation is like Russian roulette - but only prepared people are lucky.

Q: In your opinion, what’s the most important obstacle to transferring academic research to the market?

A: Normally, this transfer should go smoothly. From a legal point of view there are no barriers that cannot be overcome. If a project is truly innovative companies would line up to invest in it immediately.

Q: So you think the problem is making and funding innovation, and the process of going to the market depends on the industry’s readiness to invest?

A: First, the most important problem is related to funding: money is not allocated to the right people. In the reviewing process, innovation is not a priority because funding decisions are based on research experience, publication records, and on the scientific value of the project, but not on its potential for innovation.

Second, our universities are not prepared to process the transition from bench to the bedside because of legal issues, difficulties in drafting contracts and so on. And the universities need to be better negotiators. This process of negotiations and legal work creates a lot of problems in Poland. There is a lack of people and institutions with the skills and knowledge to do it.

Q: What about of the Polish pharmaceutical industry?

A: These companies don’t suffer of a lack of ideas, but from a lack of resources. They have many projects but they don’t have enough resources to work on all of them and they can’t develop projects for every researcher that comes up with a good idea.

Q: Do you think that the national funding agency is able to reform, to simplify procedures and to facilitate collaboration?

A: I still hope that will happen.  I am deeply convinced that there is a will from the side of the director of the national funding agency to do this. I have no doubt that there is a sincere will to do this. But you know, this might be just wishful thinking.

This is the first of a series of three viewpoints assessing Poland’s progress in developing collaborations between academe and industry to foster open  innovation.

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