New agreement leases drug flops to NIH for further study

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The federal government said on Thursday that it will team up even more closely with drug companies to test old drugs for new uses. The National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences signed a deal with Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and Eli Lilly and Co. under which the drug companies agreed to make dozens of compounds available for NIH-funded testing.  

"Clearly, we need to speed the pace at which we are turning discoveries into better health outcomes," NIH Director Francis Collins said in a statement.

NIH already often does the basic, most risky research on potential new drugs and then licenses them to companies to develop into commercial products. Under this new agreement, the companies will let NIH commission studies on compounds that flopped.

The hope is that a drug that failed against one disease might work against another. The first AIDS drug, AZT, is an example. It didn’t work against cancer but it fights the human immunodeficiency virus. Viagra’s extra properties were discovered when it was being tested against heart disease; now it’s an impotence drug.

"Americans are eagerly awaiting the next generation of cures and treatments to help them live longer and healthier lives. To accelerate our nation's therapeutic development process, it is essential that we forge strong, innovative, and strategic partnerships across government, academia, and industry," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

NIH says that while researchers have identified the causes of more than 4,500 diseases, effective treatments exist for only about 250 of them.

"Discovering and developing new medicines, regardless of the therapeutic area being studied, is a complex and expensive process, and we look forward to collaborating with the NIH and academia for the benefit of the patients we all serve,” said Lilly’s Jan Lundberg.

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