Billionaires spend a fortune to keep scientists away from universities

In an unnamed laboratory located between the campuses of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a dissident group of scientists is searching for the next billion-dollar drug.

The group, funded with $500 million from some of corporate America’s wealthiest families, has created a stir in academia by offering seven-figure salaries to lure highly credentialed university professors into a for-profit bounty hunt. . Their self-proclaimed goal: to avoid the blockages and red tape that slow traditional paths of scientific research at universities and pharmaceutical companies, and to discover dozens of new drugs (initially, for cancer and brain diseases) that can be produced and sold quickly. .

Startup bragging is de rigueur, and many former academics have founded biotech companies hoping to strike it rich with their one big discovery. This group, rather boastfully called Arena BioWorks, to borrow from a Teddy Roosevelt quote, doesn’t have a singular idea, but it does have a big checkbook.

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“I make no apologies for being a capitalist, and that team motivation is not a bad thing,” said technology mogul Michael Dell, one of the group’s big backers. Others include an heir to the Subway sandwich fortune and the owner of the Boston Celtics.

The problem is that for decades, many drug discoveries not only originated at colleges and universities, but also produced profits that helped fill their coffers. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, has said it earned hundreds of millions of dollars for research into mRNA vaccines used against COVID-19.

Under this model, any such windfall would remain private.

Arena has been operating in stealth mode since early fall, before unrest over Israel and Hamas broke out at the universities it borders. But the impetus behind it, say researchers who have jumped into the new lab, is becoming more acute as the reputations of higher education institutions take a hit. They say they are frustrated by the slow pace and administrative gridlock at their former employers, as well as what one new employee, J. Keith Joung, said was an “atrocious” salary at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he worked before leaving. Sand.

“It used to be considered a failure to move from academia to industry,” said Joung, a pathologist who helped design the gene-editing tool CRISPR. “Now the model has changed.”

The motivation behind Arena has scientific, financial and even emotional components. His early backers first mulled the idea at a late 2021 meeting at a mansion in Austin, Texas, where Dell, along with early Facebook investor James W. Breyer and Celtics owner Stephen Pagliuca , they talked to each other about the idea. seemingly endless requests for money from college fundraisers.

Pagliuca had donated hundreds of millions of dollars to his alma maters, Duke University and Harvard, much of it earmarked for science. That earned him positions on four institutional advisory boards, but he began to realize that he had no concrete idea of ​​what all that money had produced, other than his name on some plaques outside various university buildings.

Over the next few months, those early backers partnered with a Boston venture capitalist and trained physician, Thomas Cahill, to devise a plan. Cahill said he would help find frustrated academics willing to give up their hard-fought university careers, as well as scientists from companies like Pfizer, in exchange for a hefty cut of the profits from any drug they discovered. Arena’s billionaire backers will take 30%, with the rest going to scientists and overhead.

For-profit science, of course, is nothing new; The pharmaceutical industry, valued at 1.5 trillion dollars, is sufficient proof of this. Entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos and Peter Thiel have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in startups trying to prolong human life, and many pharmaceutical companies have raided universities for talent.

A considerable percentage of medicines come from government or university subsidies, or a combination of both. From 2010 to 2016, each of the 210 new drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration was related to research funded by the National Institutes of Health, according to the scientific journal PNAS. A 2019 study by former Harvard Medical School dean Jeffrey Flier said most of the “new knowledge” about biology and disease came from academia.

That system has long-standing advantages. Universities, usually aided by their nonprofit status, have a nearly unlimited and low-paid supply of research assistants to help scientists in the early stages of research. From this model, innovative medicines were born, including penicillin.

The problem, scientists and researchers say, is that there can be years-long waits to get institutional approval from universities to move forward with promising research. The process, aimed at weeding out unrealistic proposals and protecting safety, can involve writing lengthy essays that can consume more than half of some scientists’ time. By the time funding arrives, the initial research idea is often already obsolete, triggering a new cycle of grant applications for projects that will surely become obsolete over time.

Stuart Schreiber, a longtime Harvard-affiliated researcher who resigned to be Arena’s chief scientist, said his most outlandish ideas rarely received support. “It got to the point where I realized the only way to get funding was to apply to study something that had already been done,” Schreiber said.

Schreiber’s prestige (he is a pioneering chemical biologist in areas such as DNA testing) helped attract nearly 100 researchers to Arena. Harvard declined to comment on his departure and that of others he helped attract.

An air of calculated secrecy has swirled around Arena’s operations. Joung, who resigned from Mass General last year, said he did not tell his former colleagues where he was going and that several had asked him if he was terminally ill. Cahill said several scientists he hired had their access to university email quickly disabled and received harsh legal threats of retaliation if they tried to recruit former colleagues, a common phenomenon in the business world that counts as mitts in academia.

The five billionaires backing Arena include Michael Chambers, a manufacturing titan and the richest man in North Dakota, and Elisabeth DeLuca, the widow of one of the founders of the Subway chain. Each of them has contributed $100 million and expects to double or triple their investment in subsequent rounds.

In confidential materials provided to investors and others, Arena describes itself as “a fully independent, privately funded public asset.”

Arena supporters said in interviews that they had no intention of completely cutting off their donations to universities. Duke rejected an offer from Pagliuca, an alumna and board member, to set up part of the lab there. Dell, a major donor to the University of Texas hospital system in her hometown of Austin, leased space for a second Arena lab there.

Schreiber said it would take years (and billions of dollars in additional funding) before the team would know if their model led to the production of any worthy drugs.

“Is it going to be better or worse?” Schreiber said. “I don’t know, but it’s worth a try.”

c.2024 The New York Times Company

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