$65M Investment and Research Partnership Creates Drug Discovery Company

Pinnacle Hill logoDeerfield Management, an investment management, information and philanthropy firm, has given the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill an injection of up to $65 million to spur drug discovery and development. The two entities have created a partnership, Pinnacle Hill, LLC, to discover new medicines across a wide range of therapeutic areas.

“We hope to spend a lot more than $65 million,” said Jim Flynn, managing partner of Deerfield. “One project by itself, if we took it all the way through to market, would be well, well north of that amount. [This] $65 million is how much we have reserved in our funds as a minimum investment. We certainly hope to invest more than that.”

Pinnacle Hill will focus on drug research projects approved and directed by a joint committee comprised of members from UNC and Deerfield leadership teams. Each project could potentially receive funding to support investigational new drug (IND) enabling studies.

Projects selected for support through Pinnacle Hill will receive a complete development plan, including funding, expert drug development guidance, experienced project management oversight and business strategy. These efforts will serve to improve and accelerate the product development process and allow founding scientists to concentrate on their research. Deerfield and UNC will will share equally in any profits.

Deerfield has embarked on partnerships of this type with top academic research institutions across the country in the last several years. This is only the second one with a public university. Deerfield’s other partnerships of this type include those with The Broad Institute, the University of California San Diego, and Johns Hopkins, Northwestern and Vanderbilt universities.

Flynn said Deerfield was interested in partnering with UNC because of its “high discovery density, meaning they have a lot of very active, prolific and talented scientists who are continually discovering advances in biology.” Another factor was that “UNC is an institution that wants to collaborate,” evidenced by several core institutes across campus, including the Eshelman Institute for Innovation, that fund translational research. Finally, he added that there was “buy-in” and “commitment to this partnership across the institution” from scientists all the way through the administration.

Principals in the Partnership

Inaugural UNC members of the joint committee are:

– Terry Magnuson, Ph.D., UNC-Chapel Hill’s vice chancellor for research and the Sarah Graham Kenan professor of genetics. Magnuson, who studies chromatin and gene expression in various diseases, joined the UNC School of Medicine in 2000 to create its $245 million-backed genetics and genomics program. He also directed the pan-campus Carolina Center for Genome Sciences, developed the Cancer Genetics Program within the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, and in 2010 became vice dean for research in the School of Medicine.

Dhiren Thakker, Ph.D., distinguished professor and interim dean of the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy and interim director of the Eshelman Institute for Innovation. Thakker, whose research focuses on drug absorption and metabolism, has been at UNC for more than 20 years and is a successful entrepreneur. Before interim dean, he served as associate dean for entrepreneurial development and global engagement.

Blossom Damania, Ph.D., the Boshamer Distinguished professor of microbiology and immunology and vice dean for research in the UNC School of Medicine. Damania’s research focuses on the pathogenesis (manner of development of disease) of oncogenic (tumor causing) viruses. Her achievements include more than 100 peer-reviewed articles, many in top journals, as well as frequent keynote addresses at conferences nationally and abroad.

“The structure of this [partnership] was appealing to us,” said Kay Wagoner, Ph.D., life science executive-in-residence at the UNC Office of Commercialization and Economic Development and associate director of the Eshelman Institute for Innovation. “They at Deerfield have one vote and we at UNC have an equal vote and we have to agree on projects to fund. From our perspective, we wanted to make sure that the three people that we had had experience in broad science and research, as well as drug discovery and drug development. These three individuals are leaders on campus in research and they have the background and experience to help us make the right decisions about these proposals.”

Next Steps

Pinnacle Hill will issue two requests for proposals each year, the first expected in January 2019. Stage 1 of the process will request submission of brief pre-proposals. Applicants selected in the review then will receive invitations to submit a full proposal application in Stage 2.

Deerfield’s Flynn said criteria for projects to win funding include novelty and the degree of biologic validation that exists or experiments that can help validate the projects. Because these projects will be exceedingly early in the development cycle, relative to industry standards, he  and Wagoner said validation of the biology is very important. 

Elizabeth Witherspoon, Ph.D., NCBiotech Writer
Thu, 11/08/2018 - 10:46