Treating chronic lung diseases: How partnerships in research and development can help

On the news that Bayer Pharmaceuticals will team up with scientists from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital to find new ways of treating patients with chronic lung disease, we caught up with four key members of the collaboration to hear their perspectives.

Edwin Silverman, MD, PhD

Chief of the Channing Division of Network Medicine
Brigham and Women’s Hospital

Benjamin Medoff, MD

Chief of Pulmonary and Critical Care
Massachusetts General Hospital

Bruce Levy, MD

Chief of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine
Brigham and Women’s Hospital

Joerg Moeller, MD

Member of the Executive Committee of Bayer AG's Pharmaceuticals Division
Head of Research and Development

Why did you choose Bayer / Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital as a partner?

J. MOELLER I’m going to rewind a little to give you the full picture: firstly, we identified a high unmet medical need in the area of chronic lung disease. This is a therapeutic area where patients have limited satisfactory treatment options and are in desperate need of new options. At Bayer we already conduct research across a range of lung diseases, and we were looking for a strong partner to complement our own expertise. We were especially interested in further researching severe forms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) to generate investigational new medicines, which could finally provide life-changing options for patients. It was at this point that we began to look for prospective partners, and specifically at renowned leaders in the field represented by Partners HealthCare at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH).

E. SILVERMAN Exactly, so Bayer approached BWH and MGH about developing a research collaboration for chronic lung diseases due to our long track record of successful scientific investigations in COPD and IPF, including epidemiology, genetics, imaging, molecular and cellular biology, and clinical trials.

B. LEVY To add some further color here, our investigators at BWH have led studies identifying more than 80 regions of the genome that are associated with COPD. We conducted cellular and animal model studies of some of these genes which have confirmed their role in COPD susceptibility. MGH investigators also have extensive experience in interstitial lung disease research, complementing the work carried out at BWH.

B. MEDOFF Yes, in addition to the outstanding research programs at BWH, the MGH has had a long-standing research program in the basic mechanisms of lung fibrosis and a growing program in imaging, pathology, and clinical trials in interstitial lung disease. When we met with Bayer it was clear they shared the same passion for investigation and development of novel therapeutics for these devastating diseases.

E. SILVERMAN During our many discussions with Bayer investigators, we have been consistently impressed by their scientific vision and insights, which resonated well with our views of the major scientific gaps in chronic lung disease research and treatment. In addition, the proposed collaborative Bayer/Partners HealthCare joint lab is a unique and exciting approach to translate our pathobiology research into new treatments.

J. MOELLER The joint lab is indeed a great model as we can combine the unique capabilities of all parties in one collaborative space. As Edwin and Bruce just described, the invaluable expertise that BWH and MGH bring really complements our own strengths in drug discovery and development , making this collaboration particularly special.

In your opinion, what are the unique qualities of this collaboration?

E. SILVERMAN For me, there are many unique aspects of this collaboration. The frequent communication between Bayer and Partners HealthCare investigators has led to a shared vision for the collaboration. The commitment to developing a joint lab and to managing the projects of the joint lab as a fully integrated team is also novel.

B. LEVY Agreed. I’d like to add another aspect regarding the research: rather than focusing on developing more bronchodilator medications for COPD, our goal is to develop new types of treatments that focus on disease mechanisms for COPD and interstitial lung disease.

B. MEDOFF In addition, the collaboration capitalizes on the strengths of all groups to develop cutting edge therapeutics for these diseases.

J. MOELLER I can only echo these comments and add that, for me, it is also a rare opportunity to engage the three teams into a multi-institute-industry collaboration. This collaboration has the potential deliver breakthrough innovation in the field of chronic lung diseases through the accumulation of scientific, medical and technological expertise. Furthermore, the fact that BWH will be the home of the joint lab is also rather unique. I don’t believe it is common to see such an organization open its doors to house a non-academic partner in the Longwood area.

What was the reason for choosing the collaboration model of a joint lab?

E. SILVERMAN Partners HealthCare and Bayer investigators have complementary strengths that will be leveraged in this joint lab. Our investigators have unique expertise in cell and molecular biology of lung disease, genetics, imaging, and bioinformatics, which complement the expertise Bayer investigators additionally have in drug development, pharmacology, and medicinal chemistry. We anticipate that we will learn a great deal from each other during this collaboration, and that those complementary strengths will lead to greater progress than either group could make by themselves.

J. MOELLER As Ed mentions, leveraging complementary strengths in this collaboration is key and the beauty of opening a joint lab is the ability to house scientists from all parties, working together on shared goals. It is a chance to connect the breakthrough scientific capabilities and openness of the academic world with the drug-development expertise and rigor of the pharmaceutical industry.

By setting up joint project teams, ideas and novel findings are directly integrated into the pipeline, thereby speeding up the time required to move a new treatment into the clinic. The joint lab continues to be an innovative model for academia-industry collaboration and was the preferred model for joint research projects with BWH and MGH.

B. MEDOFF It’s all about teaming up to accelerate drug discovery for COPD and interstitial lung disease. Put simply: together we will do this better.

Why was it important to collaborate in the field of lung disease?

B. LEVY Joerg alluded to the unmet need in lung diseases earlier. In the case of COPD, it is a major public health problem, and is currently the fourth leading cause of death in the USA. It is also a complex and heterogeneous disease. Current drug treatments for COPD are woefully inadequate; they provide some symptomatic relief but do not target the biological mechanisms for the disease. Similar challenges apply to interstitial lung diseases. We need creative and integrated scientific approaches to develop new treatments for these chronic lung diseases.

J. MOELLER The high unmet medical need in the field of lung disease is something that must be addressed and the statistics that Bruce cites up are certainly concerning. At Bayer, we are striving to bring patients more options and conduct research across a broad spectrum of lung diseases, including interstitial lung diseases, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and pulmonary arterial hypertension. The cooperation with Partners HealthCare in the field of lung disease will support us in developing therapies for patients with the aim of providing them with more options to live a better life.

How do you believe patients will benefit from this collaboration?

B. MEDOFF I see the suffering these diseases cause in my patients and all too frequently there is very little I can do to relieve their symptoms or slow the pace of their disease. Anything that can bring new therapeutics into the clinic will be of huge benefit to our patients with COPD and interstitial lung disease. This collaboration should only work to accelerate this process.

B. LEVY This collaboration has the potential to provide transformative medicines that are substantially more effective treatments for COPD and interstitial lung disease than currently available options. These treatments will hopefully lead to less frequent chronic lung disease exacerbations and reduced disease progression.

J. MOELLER Patients are really at the heart of this collaboration. With BWH and MGH, Partners HealthCare offers access to unique cooperation between physicians and patients, facilitating direct dialogue with patients and an in-depth understanding of their disease. At Bayer we will benefit from this as it will give our competencies in drug development a new dimension, fostering a more seamless translation of research to the clinic with the core aim of bringing new treatments to patients faster than before.