Abbott Laboratories VPs Ed Michael and Jim Sullivan say that collaboration with the Weizmann Institute is already showing promise.

Since buying Israeli company Starlims in 2010, Abbott Laboratories, which has a finger in just about every biomed pie, has shown heightened interest in the Israeli market. The company is a leader in drugs and diagnostics, and has a thriving medical devices division, and a nutrition division (Similac, for example). It is even active in animal health, and it has launched a new venture capital fund that seeks technologies in Israel.

A few months ago, Abbott signed a multi-year collaboration agreement in pharma and diagnostics with the Weizmann Institute. "We signed an agreement for at least three years, and we have already brought several of the institute's technologies to the company for examination," says Ed Michael, executive vice president, Diagnostic Products at Abbott.

"We are very enthusiastic about the potential of the Weizmann Institute," says Jim Sullivan, divisional vice president, neuroscience discovery. "We gave guidance to the scientists about the fields that interest us, with the intention of starting small and letting the relationship build up."

Which fields are you interested in?

Sullivan: "The Weizmann Institute has expertise in several growing areas in the drugs sector. For example, cancer, Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, and kidney diseases. Another field that interests us is pharma combined with diagnostics, for example, drugs for specific target groups, with the segmentation being done by a diagnostic test; drugs the dosage of which is set through a test; imaging capabilities that make it possible to plan administration of a drug more precisely. Companies that enable us to direct drugs to inaccessible parts of the body, such as to the brain, also interest us."

Michael: "We are looking for cheaper methods of diagnosis. That could benefit developing countries, and also facilitate carrying out examinations at home instead of going to hospital. We have already received from the Weizmann researchers several proposals for methods of biological processing that could assist in this area."

Is there close cooperation between your diagnostics and pharma divisions?

Michael: "We are two separate divisions that work together quite a lot. Sometimes, the various departments also collaborate with parallel departments in other organizations. So, for example, we received approval for a Pfizer drug combined with a diagnostic test of ours. If our pharma department isn't hurt by it, I see no problem with that."

How do you build relations with other companies, some of which are much smaller, and have different corporate cultures?

Sullivan: "Sometimes, smaller entities are frightened of us because we are so big. Some of them have never seen so many lawyers in one room. To remove the barriers at the start, it's a good idea to begin with relations between scientists, and bring on the bureaucracy afterwards."

Michael: "Our relationship with Starlims is an excellent example of success in this area. The company operates from Israel, but we have expanded its activity, and we intend to expand it further."

What is the regulatory and economic environment like in the US today?

Michael: "Regulatory hurdles have become tougher, and together with the cost and the uncertainty in many fields, a situation has come about in which new products aren't developed at all."

Sullivan: "Nevertheless, we have seen that when we bring breakthrough innovation, suddenly the FDA does help us. For example, we recently proposed a drug with the potential of raising the chances of a cure and considerably shortening the duration of the disease in Hepatitis C. The FDA responded positively, because they saw the potential benefit."

How have developments in the digital world in recent years affected the pharmaceutical industry?

Michael: "Collaboration within and between companies is simpler. As far as the connection with the consumer is concerned, social media are a real risk and a minefield. You have to be careful when you provide information to people. We'd like to enable consumers to get in touch with other patients like them, with doctors, and with us. We have thought about this a great deal in recent years, and we continue to think."

Sullivan: "Abbott has about 7,000 scientists and engineers around the world. One of the areas we have worked on lately is to create free cooperation between them. Today, they can ask a question and hear each other's opinions. One reason we bought Starlims was that their products make such collaboration possible."

In your view, is radical change required today in the structure of pharmaceuticals and diagnostics companies in order to maintain innovation?

Sullivan: "The current development process is too long and too expensive. You have to think hard about the way you do research, which is why cooperation with academe, such as the Weizmann Institute, and with young companies, is so important for us."

Medical nutrition, not food additives

Medical nutrition is one of the fields that set Abbott apart, and it is growing. Israeli consumers perhaps know the baby food compound Similac, and perhaps also a recently launched product in the same area, PediaSure, a dietary supplement for children who are selective eaters.

The idea for a product like PediaSure grew out of another Abbott product, Ensure, which is an enriched drink for the elderly and infirm, and which has sales of $1 billion. Ensure exemplifies the complexity of medical nutrition. There is a version sold direct to the consumer and marketed like any consumer product, but also a product for hospitals designed for feeding through a tube. The team responsible for the product has to develop expertise in both areas.

Other medical nutrition products that demonstrate the potential of the field are special drinks and foods for cancer patients that take account of the effect of treatment on the stomach and the appetite, and of nutritional insufficiencies that arise; products for improving cognition in conditions such as Alzheimer's and schizophrenia; special food for kidney disease patients; and special food for patients at risk from contamination.

How do you make the consumer distinguish between medical nutrition and food additives?

Sullivan: "The regulatory environment in food is developing rapidly, and we are waiting to see that will happen in this area. It could be that it would be a good idea if there were regulation on these products requiring those who sell them to demonstrate that the product is effective."

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on February 7, 2012

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2012

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