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Bridging the translation research gap

by Guest Author on 11 Sep 2019

Taking ideas from bench to bedside is complicated. So, what’s the best way to progress exciting new ideas emerging in academia? Professor Simon Hollingsworth, Vice President and Global Medicine Leader at AstraZeneca, and Visiting Professor at Kings College London, chaired the advisory group of a report looking back over a decade of MRC translation funding. He shares what they found.

Author Professor Simon Hollingsworth

Professor Simon Hollingsworth. Image credit: AstraZeneca.

It’s well documented in the pharmaceutical sector that the path from discovery to clinical adoption and use of a new commercial product is long and perilous. It can take many years (sometimes more than 20 years) to bring a new product to market where it can benefit patients.

Everyone involved in medical research would like to see biomedical research discoveries turned into more patient benefit – sooner, more often and in more diverse areas. With this aim in mind, in 2008, the MRC set out to improve translation of UK academic medical research.

Ten years on, I chaired an expert group tasked with reviewing these efforts, together with Ipsos Mori and Technopolis. And as the report shows, our findings are encouraging: public funding, used well, can be very effective in bringing forward new projects that are clinically important, and commercially and economically realistic.

Funding steps towards translation

By making small-scale rapid investments, coupled with and alongside funding larger, milestone-driven projects and partnerships, the report highlights how MRC funding has helped de-risk new ideas, give them momentum and attract follow-on private funding.

Of course, not every project works – and the MRC’s aim was not to merely fund ‘safe’ projects. Often research results show teams that they need to go change direction or go back to understand the disease better, before moving forward again. Vision, perseverance and flexibility are important. It is said that “if you’re not failing, you’re not innovating” – and innovating is absolutely key to turning scientific discoveries into health benefit.

Overall, about 60% of MRC-funded translational projects aiming to develop new treatments or diagnoses advanced to a later stage of development during their MRC grant. And, as a stronger indicator of success, 32% reached the stage where they were able to get private sector funding, or ‘downstream’ non-profit funds, for the later stages of development – leaving the MRC’s funding remit and proving their value to independent investors.

Some of the most impressive results were seen in spin-out companies taking forward translational grant-funded work on advanced therapies – covering innovations in gene therapy and stem cell engineering. These spin-outs focus on developing gene therapies for patients with rare diseases, inherited retinal disorders and a range of serious diseases affecting the eye, salivary gland and central nervous system. By 2018, this wave of spin-outs accounted for over one-third of all equity investment into the UK biotech and medical devices sector – but it took years of translational research and sustained funding to reach this stage.

Lessons for the future

The approaches launched 10 years ago by the MRC were undoubtedly effective in speeding up clinical benefit and economic impact from academic research. They are seen nationally and internationally as setting a high standard. But what will be effective in the next 10 years? Our report offers helpful suggestions for the future.

It’s important to offer a range of flexible funding programmes that support different stages of research – from rapid streamlined access to funds at early stages, to large and expensive projects taking new therapies into humans for the first time. But the stages and types of support may need to evolve, for example, to support the growth of fast-moving digital healthcare projects.

The progress of MRC-funded projects also highlights how collaboration is an essential component of translational research, bringing together the many required skills that are often beyond a single research group. Collaborating with industrial partners is clearly not always essential in the early stages, but should be encouraged, and can be helpful. While translational expertise in universities and the NHS has undoubtedly improved over the decade, we could move faster if we bring together the capabilities of academia and industry more often and encourage more mobility between these sectors.

The consensus from the 110 key opinion leaders who were interviewed for the report is that developing the right skills and mindset is key. I hope that together we can act on their suggestions for improving translational research, commercial and entrepreneurial skills by expanding training and access to expert advice.

It was a privilege to chair the advisory group of this report and see the high level of commitment, scientific endeavour and passion for taking ideas from concept to clinic. I hope this body of evidence encourages the MRC and other funders to continue the vital work of bridging the translational gap – and to ensure the UK remains at the forefront of this essential scientific discipline.

Read the full report.

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