Thou­sands of rare drugs are stalled in what is often called the “Valley of Death” — the phase where pri­vate com­pa­nies abandon a drug devel­op­ment project because of its high costs cou­pled with the high risk of failure.

The National Insti­tutes of Health (NIH) and research uni­ver­si­ties such as North­eastern are at the fore­front of a new move­ment to over­come those obsta­cles to drug devel­op­ment. It is based on inter­dis­ci­pli­nary col­lab­o­ra­tions between the public and pri­vate sec­tors to dis­cover new ther­a­pies, said Dr. Christo­pher Austin, the sci­en­tific director of the NIH’s Center of Trans­la­tional Ther­a­peu­tics and the senior advisor for the director of trans­la­tional research at the National Human Genome Research Insti­tute.

Austin spoke at North­eastern last Friday at an event spon­sored by the Provost’s Office, the Office of Gov­ern­ment Rela­tions and the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences

“This is an area of tremen­dous oppor­tu­nity and need,” said Austin, explaining that, of about 6,000 rare dis­eases that affect humans, only about 200 have treat­ments. “These are areas that have been made sci­en­tif­i­cally tractable, in some cases, for the first time ever because of advances due to the Genome Project and other sci­en­tific break­throughs so that we now under­stand the under­lying sci­ence and phys­i­ology of these dis­or­ders that we simply didn’t 10 years ago.”

The ecosystem of trans­la­tion and ther­a­peutic research is changing, Austin said, from the tra­di­tional system — in which the non­profit sector does the basic sci­ence while pri­vate industry pur­sues the real-​​world appli­ca­tions and pay­offs — to a new model based on part­ner­ships and col­lab­o­ra­tions across dis­ci­plines and orga­ni­za­tions.

Insti­tu­tions such as North­eastern are at the fore­front of this solution-​​focused research, for which the NIH is devel­oping mile­stones to help drug devel­opers move through the nec­es­sary steps ahead of human drug trials. Teams work across dis­ci­plines — and with researchers from other uni­ver­si­ties and insti­tu­tions — to achieve tan­gible goals to ben­efit society.

“I think what is going on at North­eastern is a per­fect example of this,” Austin said. “This trans­la­tion of research is oblig­a­to­rily a team sport and oblig­a­to­rily a col­lab­o­ra­tive enter­prise in which tremen­dously skilled researchers from a number of dis­ci­plines are required to get a dis­covery from its basic, mech­a­nistic stage to a point where it would be useful in the real world.”

Uni­ver­si­ties are also impor­tant to the NIH’s work, Austin said, because they train the next gen­er­a­tion of sci­en­tists and researchers who will work in both the pri­vate and public spheres on prob­lems relating to dis­ease and public health.

“The training of people in these areas of chem­istry, engi­neering, bio­engi­neering, infor­ma­tion tech­nology and other explic­itly deliv­er­able research — applied research — is a huge oppor­tu­nity and an impor­tant mis­sion,” he said.

This shift toward results-​​based research also leads to out­comes that are easier for polit­ical leaders and policy makers to digest than basic, fun­da­mental sci­en­tific advance­ments without real-​​world appli­ca­tions, allowing for more resources to be devoted to these impor­tant projects.

“As someone who works in the public policy space and spends a lot of my time advo­cating for NIH funding, these par­a­digm shifts to a focus on appli­ca­tions is extremely helpful because it makes sci­en­tific research more tan­gible for policy makers,” said Tim Leshan, Northeastern’s vice pres­i­dent for gov­ern­ment rela­tions and a former col­league of Austin at the NIH.