A thoughtful opinion piece on academic drug discovery in ACS Med Chem Letters by D.M. Huryn makes interesting reading . Much has been written about universities seemingly seeking to duplicate commercial drug discovery efforts or entering into very focused partnerships with ‘Big Pharma’. The author advocates a different approach stating “rather than asking how a university can mimic a drug discovery company, perhaps a better question is what unique features inherent in an academic setting can be taken advantage of, embellished, and fostered to promote drug discovery and encourage success?“ She goes on to emphasize some of the positive characteristics of universities, including strong fundamental biological research and the willingness to take risks.
Indeed, this is exactly what has been happening in many academic drug discovery units, as revealed in a recent survey . Rather than focusing on validated compounds for chronic diseases of rich countries, as is the practice of Big Pharma, academic drug discovery units tend to build on local basic research and to place major emphasis on drugs for orphan diseases or diseases of less developed countries. Moreover, while success for a drug company can only mean a marketed drug, success in academic drug discovery can include the develop of powerful chemical probes for basic biology.
There have been many discussions of the appropriateness of team-based drug discovery in an academic environment that emphasizes individual accomplishment. Certainly there have been some strains in some institutions in this regard. However, as a faculty member at a university with a strong academic drug discovery unit I have mainly witnessed a smooth integration of academic basic science with the screening and discovery process. Likewise, many students and postdocs who have had some exposure to the collaborative discovery process come away the better for it, without compromise of their individual research thrusts. Thus, overall it seems that academic drug discovery is here to stay, that it will not supplant commercial drug discovery, but rather provide an exciting and important complement.
 Frye, S. F.; Crosby, M.; Edwards, R.; Juliano, R. US Academic Drug Discovery. Nature Rev. Drug Discovery 2011, 10, 409−410