The Latest Move By a Public-Private Partnership That Aims to "Transform" Medicine

 photo:  bogdanhoda/shutterstock

photo:  bogdanhoda/shutterstock

Public-private partnerships are becoming more common as philanthropy, government and business look for ways to work together to solve complex problems. We've written about these collaborations in a growing range of areas, and you can see why they're spreading. 

Each of these sectors has its own strengths. Philanthropy is nimble and can take risks. Business has its profit motive—a pretty powerful one, especially when connected to a desire to do real good in the world through enlightened self-interest. And government has the deep pockets necessary to fund initiatives to scale. It can also provide oversight and standards.

In theory, public-private collaborations can leverage strengths and eliminate the inefficiencies that necessarily occur when a number of disconnected organizations run at the same problem. 

Related: Inside Los Angeles' Ambitious Public-Private Child Welfare Partnership

Yet while we've mainly written at IP about public-private collaborations in areas like education, housing and workforce development, medical research is yet another area where this approach can connect dots and leverage resources in ways that yield promising results. 

A case in point is the  Accelerating Medicines Partnership (AMP) of the National Institutes of Health. The AMP unites the NIH, the FDA, a dozen life science companies, and at least 13 nonprofits "to transform the current model for developing new diagnostics and treatments." It launched in 2014 with projects in three disease areas: Alzheimer's, type 2 diabetes, and autoimmune disorders of rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus. 

Now joining the AMP portfolio is Parkinson's disease—the focus, of course, of the Michael J. Fox Foundation, established by the disorder's most famous patient. 

The Parkinson's AMP will launch MJFF, the NIH, and five life science companies in ambitious research and development goals. Over the next five years, MJFF and the industry partners will contribute a total of $12 million to the effort, and the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) will match those funds with an additional $12 million. 

The initial phase of the project will study previously collected data and biological samples using various "omics" technologies—genomics, proteomics, metabolomics—to define the molecular fingerprint of Parkinson's disease. They'll study the MJFF-led Parkinson's Progression Markers Initiative (PPMI), an $80 million, longitudinal biomarkers study that collects data and biosamples from volunteers around the world. According to MJFF, the availability of these samples—and the chance to unlock potential knowledge in the data—was a driving factor in the partners' decision to invest in the AMP program. 

The PPMI trove is one of a number of ambitious data projects we've reported on that have been developed with the help of philanthropic dollars. The Simons Foundation and Helmsley Charitable Trust also have data efforts underway to shine new light on autism and diabetes, respectively. These are the kinds of undertakings that are well-suited to philanthropy, since private funders can bankroll long-term data collection without worrying about shareholders getting antsy or lawmakers wondering where the public benefit lies. In turn, the insights that flow from better data can be the foundation for major new investments by government or industry. 

According to the NIH, identifying biomarkers for Parkinson's is crucial to development of treatments, and the partners want to see what they can learn from the PPMI and data from other large-scale biomarker studies. "However," says the NIH, "the resources, time, and cost required to perform a large-scale analysis of that data has been prohibitive for individual researchers, companies and organizations. AMP PD will provide the expertise and support needed to determine which biomarkers show the greatest potential for predicting PD and the progression of the disease."

Medical research is a long and complex road, and in recognition of this, leaders at the NIH, universities and other research institutions have, in the last decade pushed hard to encourage cross-disciplinary and multi-institutional studies. This is especially true when it comes to clinical health research, but it may be years before we can really get a handle on how productive partnerships like the Parkinson's AMP can be.