Teva kicks off early-stage research plan in quest for new drugs for its pipeline

Firm announces R&D partnerships with Weizmann Institute, Tel Aviv University in brain and cancer therapies; move marks foray into ‘merging of minds between academia and pharma’

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

In a lab in the Teva Medical Factory in Har Hotzvim, Jerusalem, March 15, 2010. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
In a lab in the Teva Medical Factory in Har Hotzvim, Jerusalem, March 15, 2010. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., the beleaguered Israeli drug maker, on Monday launched a global, early-stage research collaboration program that it hopes will form the basis of its future drugs.

The program was kicked off in Israel with announcements of collaborations with the Weizmann Institute of Science and Tel Aviv University.

As part of the program, Teva will inject millions of dollars a year into funding selected projects and researchers, and the firm’s global and local research and development teams will partner with these scientists to develop new drugs and innovative antibodies for the treatment of cancer and brain diseases.

The new program marks a “re-engagement” of the drug maker with academia and a first foray for Teva into “early research” in the fields of immunology and immunotherapy, said Mati Gill, head of Government Affairs Corporate and International Markets at Teva, in a phone interview. The aim, he said, is to
“strengthen the future pipeline of Teva.”

Teva signing with Weizmann institute, from right to left: Dr. Rony Dahan, researcher in antibody and cancer immunology, Dr. Hafrun Fridriksdottir, Teva’s Executive Vice President, Global R&D, Prof. Daniel Zajfman, President of the Weizmann Institute of Science, Gil Granot, CEO of Yeda Research and Development Company, Mati Gill, Head of Government Affairs Corporate & International Markets at Teva (Eyal Tueg)

Teva signed a collaboration agreement on Monday with Yeda Research and Development Company, the commercial arm of the Weizmann Institute, which envisages Teva injecting funds and working together with Weizmann scientists to research and develop “at a rapid pace” specific innovative antibodies for the treatment of various types of cancer, the parties said in a joint statement.

Teva also said Monday it was expanding its scientific collaboration with Tel Aviv University, with teams from Teva and TAU conducting collaborative research in the field of cancer immunotherapies and brain research.

The program was kicked off in Israel with these two academic institutions, said Teva’s Gill, but there are more collaborations to come with institutions in Israel and globally.

Teva signing with TAU, from right to left: Dr. Dana Bar-On, leader of Teva Academia initiative, Dr. David Wilson, head of discovery, Teva, Dr. Steffen Nock, head of Teva’s Innovative Research team, Prof. Ariel Porat, President of Tel Aviv University, Prof. RONIT SATCHI-FAINARO, member of the board of directors, Teva, Prof. Yoav Henis, TAU Vice President (Eyal Tueg)

The Israeli drug maker has been struggling to fend off competition for its flagship branded drug Copaxone for multiple sclerosis, and has been firing workers, divesting assets, and restructuring its business to restore investor confidence after a series of missteps saw the firm’s debt balloon. The firm is also implicated in thousands of US opioid lawsuits.

The firm’s debt load fell to $26.9 billion at the end of September from $28.7 billion three months earlier.

In February this year, chief executive officer of Teva Kare Schultz, tasked in 2017 to get the company back on its feet, said that the drug maker will to continue to focus on generics, its key market, but will also “strive for leadership” in biopharmaceuticals.

“We are executing the strategy the CEO put in place,” said Gill. “One of those areas of strategy was obviously to focus on restructuring and cost savings — that was an urgent need, in order to meet the financial targets which we have been meeting over the last two years.”

The collaborations, said Gill, were part of the firm’s strategy to be a leader in biopharmaceuticals, not just with the drugs Teva is marketing today but “also in the future. Because these kinds of collaborations are very future looking.”

Teva CEO Kare Schultz at a press conference in Tel Aviv; Feb. 19, 2019 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

The collaborations also mark a change in approach from how Teva has interacted with academia in previous years, though the previous approach — via grants and scholarships — are going to continue, Gill said.

The new program is different because it will focus on early-stage research, with the company’s R&D teams working “hand in hand” and in depth with the scientists.

“This is a not a late-stage acquisition of a drug that is already in Phase II or Phase 3 of development,” Gill said. “This is very early stage of research.”

The announcement on Monday comes at the end of an “in-depth process” conducted by Teva to identify the most appropriate research teams at Israeli universities, the statement said.

The Weizmann Institute collaboration team will be led by Dr. Rony Dahan, a leading researcher in antibody and cancer immunology and immunotherapy studies, who joined Weizmann two years ago after completing postdoctoral research at Rockefeller University.

Dahan and other researchers at Weizmann will work with research teams at Teva, both in Israel and globally, to focus on advanced immunological research, computational biology and advanced single-cell analysis capabilities — all of which are in line with Teva’s focus, said Gill.

Biopharmaceuticals and biosimilars, generic versions of biopharmaceutical drugs, “is where the future of medicine is going,” Gill said.

Illustrative photo of pills in the Teva Medical Factory in Har Hotzvim, Jerusalem, March 15, 2010. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The decision to beef up the firm’s collaboration with academia is “due to the outstanding knowledge and innovation that characterize these institutions and its researchers, who are among the most talented worldwide,” said Dr. Hafrun Fridriksdottir, Teva’s executive vice president Global R&D, in the statement.

The collaboration with Teva “is very good news to the academy, the researchers and the industry in Israel,” said Prof. Daniel Zajfman, president of the Weizmann Institute of Science. “There’s no doubt that this long-term investment will bear fruits and lead to breakthroughs in science and technology.”

The collaboration between Teva and Tel Aviv University will focus on research to test the efficacy of immunotherapy in a variety of models, explore ways to improve antibody production by utilizing advanced bioinformatics tools, and promote projects aimed at finding new mechanisms to understand nervous system disorders, the statement said.

Pills at the Teva factory in Har Hotzvim, Jerusalem (illustrative photo; credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Pills at the Teva factory in Har Hotzvim, Jerusalem (illustrative photo; credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Dr. Steffen Nock, head of Teva’s Innovative Research team, said the firm hopes that “this merging of minds between academia and pharma will help facilitate the discovery of innovative drugs and technologies.”

“Teva is planning to carry out much more cutting-edge collaboration with researchers from leading universities and medical centers in Israel in the fields of oncology, immunology and brain studies — areas in which Israel has unique research capabilities,” he added.

Prof. Ariel Porat, president of Tel Aviv University, said in the statement that the university has a “strategic goal to strengthen its cooperation with the Israeli society as whole, and with the technological industry in particular. We hope that the cooperation with Teva will lead to significant breaktrhoughs in the field of cancer and brain research.”

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