Not long ago, I wrote about a Pfizer (PFE) program for smaller companies to come screen their targets against Pfizer's compound bank. Now Eli Lilly (LLY) has flipped that around. In an initiative to bring other people's compounds out of the stockrooms and off the shelves, they'll screen them for free.
These aren't single-target assays. The company has four phenotypic screens going (for Alzheimer's, diabetes, cancer, and osteoporosis) and will look for improvement by any mechanism that comes to hand. No chemical structure information is shown to Lilly (I assume that they just know the molecular weight so they can run a dilution series). If something looks interesting, the company and the owners of the chemical matter have 120 days to come to terms for any further development deal - if not, then all rights revert to the submitter, and they can publish the data from the screens.
Lilly's working out a universal material transfer agreement, in collaboration with a number of universities, so that the paperwork stays the same every time. That's a good move. The lawyering can be a real holdup - in my experience, every party in these agreements usually comes in with slightly different wording in their magic legal spells, requiring several rounds of reconciliation before everyone's ready to sign.
I think that this is a worthwhile idea, and that they'll get a lot of takers. There are plenty of compounds sitting around in academic labs gathering dust, so why not send 'em in? The worst that can happen is nothing, and the best is that the compound actually turns out to be worth something. But will anything come out of it? The closest program to this is surely the National Cancer Institute's long-standing (since 1990) NCI-60 screening program, which also runs at no cost to the submitters. Even so, a recent reference mentions that there are between 40,000 and 50,000 compounds in the NCI database, which actually seems rather small, considering. (To be fair, the program is not being funded at the levels that it was during the early 1990s.) The only marketed compound that I'm aware of that can be said to have come out of the NCI-60 screen is Velcade (bortezomib), known then as PS-341, which was sent in for screening by Proscript Pharmaceuticals in the mid-1990s. Many other interesting structures have turned up along the way, though, which for various reasons haven't made it all the way through.
It'll be quite interesting to see what sort of hit rate Lilly's phenotypic assays call up - I hope they tell us. I have a lot of sympathy for the mechanism-agnostic approach myself, and I'd like to see how closely my bias is aligned to reality.