Company has high hopes for NU’s drug

Becky Bowman

If the drug pregabalin receives Food and Drug Administration approval and hits the market, Northwestern would receive 6 percent of its revenue, said University President Henry Bienen on Friday.

Bienen said administrators have a wish list of ideas ready for ways to spend NU’s windfall from the drug, which could be in the range of $240 million to $360 million per year if predictions made by an industry analyst are correct.

Arthur Pancoe, who has been watching pregabalin for several years, predicted that the drug could produce $4 billion to $6 billion per year, leaving NU with 6 percent of that total.

Bienen said the university primarily would use the money to expand the endowment, create graduate fellowships and increase funds for the maintenance of NU’s buildings and grounds.

Pregabalin, discovered by biochemistry Prof. Richard Silverman at NU in 1989, is being tested by Pfizer Inc., the world’s largest drug company, as treatment for anxiety and neuropathic pain.

Pregabalin is currently in clinical trials at Pfizer and will be submitted for FDA approval in December, said Shreya Jani-Prudlo, a spokeswoman for Pfizer. The drug has been tested on 8,000 patients to date and has showed fewer side effects than the anti-anxiety drugs it has been tested against, according to a Pfizer press release.

“Trials are going well,” Jani-Prudlo said. “Pfizer is especially encouraged by the 80 to 90 percent of patients who stay with the drug. Pfizer is very excited about the excellent safety profile of pregabalin.”

Though Pfizer would receive a large portion of the revenue if the drug is successful, Bienen said university officials are thrilled with the 6 percent total NU could take in.

“We negotiated really as good of an agreement as you could negotiate,” Bienen said.

But Bienen said he is not planning on the revenue quite yet.

“I’m not cashing in the checks until we see if this is finally approved,” he said. “In this process, at the last minute there can be a glitch.”

But if the drug is improved, Bienen said the huge sum of additional funds each year also would be able to help the university put more money into retaining faculty – something Campaign Northwestern revenues might not be able to do to the extent that administrators had hoped.

“One of the reasons we’ve had less money for adding new faculty is that the cost of retaining old faculty had risen,” Bienen said.

Bienen also said a significant portion of the revenues could go to hiring science and engineering faculty and that he would like to ease the cost of maintaining buildings on NU’s campuses.

“If we did have a windfall in money, one of the things I would try to do is get the building program off of everyone’s back,” he said. “It would certainly be a great budget relief in the out years not to have this kind of heavy monster sitting on everybody like the building costs.”

Bienen said NU also would need to guard itself against potential negative impacts of having such a successful drug.

At a Board of Trustees meeting earlier this year, Bienen said fears were raised about NU losing academic focus in light of a potential corporate success.

But Bienen said he hopes NU’s academic priorities would not change at all.

“It worries people that your faculty will get distracted, that they’ll pay more attention to running their companies,” he said. “(But) they’re actually terrible at running their companies.”

Bienen said he would like to create a model at NU in which professors could be involved in the initial stages of marketing their discoveries but then return to researching and teaching.

“A lot of (professors) found a company, get a good CEO and get rich and give us money,” he said. “That’s my ideal pattern.”

The potential success also raises an issue of balance between the arts and sciences at a university, Bienen said.

Scientific and medical research can be expensive for a university, both in terms of time and money. But Bienen said the research also offers a chance to do good for the world.

“The university cannot be cut off from the world, and it shouldn’t be cut off from the world, because beyond the revenues, which we hope to improve, we want to make an impact in the world,” he said.

“We want to do good for the world, in pharmaceutical products, in medical diagnostics,” Bienen said.

Lydia Villa-Komaroff, NU’s vice president for research, said the revenue could help the school to better support faculty in important research areas but that NU is already a top research university based on past research successes.

“We are in a sense already up there,” she said. “We’re easily in the top 50.”