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

The group, funded to the tune of $500 million by some of the richest families in American business, has caused a stir in academia by dangling seven-figure salaries to lure highly qualified university professors to a bounty hunting for profit. Its stated goal: to avoid the blockages and red tape that slow down traditional paths of scientific research in universities and pharmaceutical companies, and to discover many new drugs (at first, against cancer and brain diseases) that can be produced and sold quickly. .

Start-up boasts are de rigeur, and many former academics have launched biotechnology companies, hoping to get rich from their one big discovery. This group, rather boastfully named Arena BioWorks, borrows from Quote from Teddy Rooseveltdoesn’t have a single idea, but he has a big checkbook.

“I make no apologies for being a capitalist, and team motivation is not a bad thing,” said tech mogul Michael Dell, a major backer of the group. Others include an heiress to the Subway sandwich fortune and a Boston Celtics owner.

The problem is that for decades, many drug discoveries not only originated in colleges and universities, but also generated profits that helped fill their endowment coffers. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, said it had won hundreds of millions of dollars for research into mRNA vaccines used against Covid-19.

In this model, such a windfall would remain private.

“I make no apologies for being a capitalist,” said Michael Dell, founder and chief executive of Dell Technologies.Credit…Guérin Blask for the New York Times

Arena has been operating in stealth mode since early fall, before unrest around Israel and Gaza erupted at border universities. Yet according to the researchers who have embarked on this new lab, the momentum behind the project is only growing as the reputations of higher education institutions suffer. They say they are frustrated by slowness and administrative bottlenecks at their former employers, as well as what one new employee, J. Keith Joung, called “atrocious” pay at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he worked before Arena.

“Previously, moving from academia to industry was considered a failure,” said Dr. Joung, a pathologist who helped design the gene-editing tool CRISPR. “Now the pattern has reversed.”

The motivation behind Arena has scientific, financial and even emotional components. Its early proponents first pondered the idea at a conference in late 2021 at a mansion in Austin, Texas, where Mr. Dell, along with early Facebook investor James W. Breyer and a Celtics owner, Stephen Pagliuca, sold out to another on seemingly endless demands for money from college fundraisers.

Mr. Pagliuca had donated hundreds of millions of dollars to his alma maters, Duke University and Harvard, much of it earmarked for science. This landed him a seat on four school 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 a few plaques. outside various university buildings.

Over the next few months, these early backers teamed up with Thomas Cahill, a Boston venture capitalist and trained physician, to develop a plan. Dr. Cahill said he would help find frustrated academics willing to give up their hard-earned academic tenure, as well as scientists from companies like Pfizer, in exchange for a hefty share of the profits from any drugs they discovered . Arena’s billionaire backers will keep 30 percent, with the rest going to scientists and for overhead.

Of course, for-profit science is nothing new; The $1.5 trillion pharmaceutical industry provides ample evidence of this. Businessmen such as Jeff Bezos and Peter Thiel have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in start-ups trying to extend human life, and many pharmaceutical companies have raided universities in search of talent .

A significant percentage of drugs come from government or university grants, or a mixture of both. From 2010 to 2016, every one of the 210 new drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration was linked to research funded by the National Institutes of Health, according to the scientific journal PNAS. A 2019 study Jeffrey Flier, former dean of Harvard Medical School, said the majority of “new knowledge” about biology and disease comes from academia.

This system has long-standing advantages. Universities, usually aided by their nonprofit status, have an almost unlimited supply of low-paid research assistants to help scientists with their early-stage research. Revolutionary drugs, including penicillin, were born from this model.

The problem, scientists and researchers say, is that there can be years of waiting to get approval from academic institutions before promising research can move forward. The process, aimed at weeding out unrealistic proposals and protecting safety, can involve writing lengthy essays that can take more than half of some scientists’ time. When funding arrives, the initial research idea is often already obsolete, triggering a new round of grant applications for projects that will certainly be outdated in their time.

Stuart Schreiber, a longtime Harvard-affiliated researcher who left his position as senior scientist at Arena, said his more outlandish ideas were rarely supported. “I got to the point where I realized the only way to get funding was to apply to study something that had already been done,” Dr. Schreiber said.

Dr. Schreiber’s cachet — he is a pioneering chemical biologist in areas such as DNA testing — has 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 swirled around Arena’s operations. Dr. Joung, who resigned from Mass General last year, said he did not tell his former colleagues where he was going and that several asked him if he was terminally ill. Dr Cahill said several scientists he hired had their email access quickly disabled and received harsh threats of legal retaliation if they tried to recruit former colleagues – a common occurrence in the world of business that counts as brass knuckles in the academic world.

Among the five billionaires backing Arena are Michael Chambers, a manufacturing titan and North Dakota’s richest man, and Elisabeth DeLuca, the widow of a founder of the Subway chain. They have each invested $100 million and hope to double or triple their investment in subsequent rounds.

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

Arena supporters have said in interviews that they have no plans to completely cut their donations to universities. Duke declined an offer from Mr. Pagliuca, an alumnus and board member, to locate part of the laboratory there. Mr. Dell, a major donor to the University of Texas hospital system in his hometown of Austin, has leased space there for a second Arena laboratory.

Dr. Schreiber said it would take years — and billions of dollars in additional funding — before the team knows whether its model led to the production of valuable drugs.

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

Audio produced by Patricia Sulbaran.

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