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Bristol, AZ take doses of Vanderbilt to treat depressed CNS drug R&D

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Vanderbilt teamed with Bristol-Myers, AztraZeneca--courtesy of Vanderbilt University

Big Pharma companies are hacking into their own R&D shops while looking more often to outside academic experts to help them find the next blockbuster drug.

Vanderbilt University has capitalized on the trend. Inking big deals with pharma giants Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) and AstraZeneca ($AZN), Vanderbilt has emerged as a leading institution for central nervous system drug research and discovery by bringing a business-like approach to the lab.

The announcement of Vanderbilt's latest partnership with AstraZeneca to develop drugs for brain diseases like Alzheimer's and schizophrenia comes only months after Vanderbilt said it would collaborate with Bristol-Myers to cultivate new therapies for Parkinson's disease.

Craig Lindsley, a professor of pharmacology and director of medical chemistry at Vanderbilt Center for Neuroscience Drug Discovery (VCDD), told FierceBiotechResearch that Vanderbilt's neuroscience community is unique because it boasts faculty members who have served stints at companies like Eli Lilly ($LLY), Merck ($MRK) and Pfizer ($PFE). Plus, he says Vanderbilt's efforts in neuroscience function differently than typical academic research.

"What it really looks like is a small biotech nestled in Vanderbilt, and it sort of functions as a biotech, too," Lindsley said in an interview.

In fact, Vanderbilt's neuroscience cluster--which comprises 22 departments and 27 centers and institutes--has grown so much that it's expanded off-campus to a biotech park 10 miles south of the university called Cool Springs Life Sciences Center.

Since 2000, Vanderbilt has injected more than $60 million into its neuroscience programs, faculty and facilities--like pharmacological testing labs and an imaging center. It's paid off. The National Institutes of Health has nearly doubled its annual grant awards to the university's neuroscience researchers since then, with $46 million in funding from the agency in 2012 for a Clinical and Translational Science Award. Most recently, Vanderbilt nabbed a $1.4 million NIH grant, renewable for three years, on Jan. 8 to research therapies for depression.

"Having that kind of support has allowed us to use that to leverage, recruit and retain good scientists," Lindsley said.

The university's timing is prescient. AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and other major drugmakers have cut back drastically on research of drugs for depression and other psychiatric illnesses.  

Looking ahead, Lindsley says VCDD plans to focus heavily on schizophrenia. He says the center is interested in taking on more partners, and in the next 12 to 18 months, he expects VCDD to have some more licensing opportunities available. -- Emily Mullin (email | Twitter)