For almost 20 years, Wellington scientists have been working with professors in a New York City laboratory in a business partnership developing groundbreaking treatments for diseases such as cancer and ulcers.
Callaghan Innovation's Richard Furneaux and Vern Schramm of Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx first met in 1994 through a Kiwi scientist who was a mutual friend.
They found collaborating could bring Schramm's team the expertise of Wellington synthetic carbohydrate chemists and give Furneaux's group the ability to reach a wider audience and access more funding than would be available in New Zealand alone.
Collaborations in the science world are not uncommon but typically last just for the duration of a research grant. Schramm and Furneaux have worked in a 50/50 equal profit share partnership.
They focus on enzyme inhibitors, which make up about a third of FDA-approved drugs. Their discoveries are licensed to pharmaceutical companies, which can afford to progress the drugs by putting them through human clinical trials, which can cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Drugs the partnership has worked on that are in or about to go through clinical trials include one for leukaemia and lymphoma, malaria and another for solid tumours such as lung, breast, prostate and colon cancer. A treatment for gout, a disease common among New Zealand's Pacific Island and Maori population, just finished phase two of its clinical trial.
The partnership earns income from pharmaceutical companies by licensing its drugs, receiving ongoing annual licence fees and milestone payments when clinical trials of drugs it invented move to a new phase of testing.
All income is split equally, and always has been, as the best way to incentivise everyone to work towards a common goal.
Schramm said one of its most exciting recent developments was a new kind of antibiotic for human ulcers, which are caused by a spiral-shaped bacteria.
"We have found the Achilles heel of it and found a compound that kills it at more potency than any of the antibiotics that are being used today," he said.
"This compound is unlike any other because it doesn't kill other bacteria in your gut. Normal antibiotics ... kill most of the normal flora in the gut as well, which can lead to really severe gastrointestinal problems down the road."
Working together from opposite ends of the earth was made easier by emailing and video conversations on Skype.
The scientists, now firm friends, spend at least a week together in person each year, but it's not all work.
"In New York City ... we generally get one or two days' fishing in," Schramm said.
- © Fairfax NZ News