Yale and Gilead Sciences, a biopharmaceutical company based in Foster City, Calif., announced in late March that they had forged a multi-year alliance to accelerate the discovery and development of drugs to treat cancer. 

Over the next four years Gilead will provide up to $40 million to support cancer research at the School of Medicine, and may provide up to $100 million—the largest corporate commitment in Yale’s history—over 10 years if the partnership is renewed in 2015. Yale will maintain ownership of all intellectual property generated by the medical school’s research, and Gilead will have the first option to license any compound it deems promising. 

The partnership comes at a difficult time for drug development. Basic research conducted over decades is bearing fruit, but the cost of drug development has risen as clinical trials and regulations have grown more complex. The average cost to develop a single approved drug has risen to $1.3 billion—a 60 percent increase since 2005. 

“The collaboration brings together one of the world’s top research universities and a biopharmaceutical company dedicated to addressing unmet medical needs, with the goal of finding new treatments for cancer,” said Yale President Richard C. Levin. “This truly is transformative support that leverages Yale Cancer Center’s top scientists, our West Campus technology investments, and the resources of the new Smilow Cancer Hospital.” 

The partnership benefits both industry and academia. Early-stage research carried out in settings like the School of Medicine is identifying more potential drug targets than ever. Research grants, however, are not designed to sustain the many additional steps involved in drug discovery. With the cost of bringing drugs to the marketplace rising, pharmaceutical companies have become more selective about which targets to pursue. As a result, some pharmaceutical companies have been forming scientific alliances with universities. 

The Yale-Gilead project will be governed by a joint steering committee chaired by Joseph Schlessinger, Ph.D., chair and the William H. Prusoff Professor of Pharmacology. The six-member committee will include Richard P. Lifton, M.D., Ph.D., chair and Sterling Professor of Genetics and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator; and Thomas J. Lynch Jr., M.D’86, the Richard Sackler and Jonathan Sackler Professor of Medicine, director of Yale Cancer Center, and physician-in-chief of Smilow Cancer Hospital. They will be joined by three Gilead scientists: Howard Jaffe, M.D. ’82, president and chair of the board of the Gilead Foundation; William A. Lee, Ph.D., senior vice president, research; and Linda Slanec Higgins, Ph.D., vice president, biology. 

Norbert W. Bischofberger, Ph.D., Gilead’s chief scientific officer, said that collaborating with Yale dovetails with the company’s renewed focus on oncology. “Based on the strong track record of the Yale cancer research team, I am confident this collaboration will lead to important advances in the understanding of the genetic basis of cancer as we collectively seek to develop novel targeted therapies for patients in areas of unmet medical need.” 

“When we find cancer targets that are new, we will work with Gilead on designing drugs, which they can then test in the clinic,” Schlessinger said. “This is a tremendous opportunity for Yale and Gilead.”