Disruption is the future of drug development

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Companies are continually adjusting their R&D models in anticipation of technological disruption, according to Dr Mike Devoy, global chief medical officer of Bayer.

Dr Devoy spoke with PharmaDispatch about a new program established by the company to support and foster innovation.

The recently launched ‘Leaps by Bayer’ program provides first-round funding for start-up companies focussed on the development of disruptive and transformational technologies.

According to Dr Devoy, the primary focus is on creating Return on Humanity (RoH) rather than Return on Investment (RoI), with a willingness to share patents and keep new companies independent but complementary to Bayer’s R&D pipeline.

"The key for us is investing in areas of high unmet need that require vision and significant scientific innovation. This approach, which operates on extended time lines of five to ten years, does not really fit with industry's traditional development model."

Dr Devoy said the genesis of the model was the company's decision to "place some bets" on areas identified as transformational and paradigm shifting, such as stem cell therapies, with the opportunity to collaborate with other investors and partners.

"We came to the conclusion this approach, which requires more versatility, would not necessarily fit into our normal R&D model. We had to find a model that allowed scientists to work on long-term timeframes, with all the barriers, challenges and risks associated with that, but with the knowledge they were not subject to the normal requirements of our traditional model."

Dr Devoy said scientific advances in healthcare and food production, which is another focus area of the ‘Leaps by Bayer’ program, are increasingly disruptive and companies like Bayer need to anticipate and be part of it.

"We tend to treat chronic disease rather than cure it," he said. "Can we move to a model where you treat a condition once - cure - using technologies like stem cell therapies. That model requires different timeframes and a new approach to product development."

The first two companies established under the program are Casebia and BlueRock Therapeutics.

Casebia, formed in partnership with CRISPR therapeutics, is focussed on the development of DNA editing technology aimed at giving sight to people born blind, cure life-threatening bleeding disorders in children and congenital heart disease in children. Bayer’s initial investment was US$335 million.

Bayer collaborated with Versant Ventures to launch BlueRock Therapeutics, a stem cell company, to specifically investigate regenerative medicine. Its goal is to cure diseases with significant cell loss or diminished self-repair, such as cardiovascular and neurological conditions – including addressing memory loss. Bayer's investment was US$225 million.

Dr Devoy said the plan is to invest in ten companies around the world.

"Ultimately, this was the company saying we need to be excellent in science and innovation, while recognising our traditional R&D model may not always be appropriate for emerging technologies. We need to anticipate disruption by being part of it," he added.