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Industry and academia – stronger together

by Guest Author on 21 Sep 2018

Derived from proteins made by the body’s immune system, monoclonal antibodies are successful drugs used to treat millions of patients. The MRC/UCB Antibody Discovery Initiative offers academic researchers access to UCB’s high-tech antibody discovery platform. Andrew Popplewell, Head of Antibody Discovery and Engineering at UCB Celltech, explains how the initiative is geared to help promote collaborative research.

Andrew Popplewell

Image credit: Andrew Popplewell.

In the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry today, collaboration and networking are all-important. And the value of tapping into academic knowledge, expertise, and talent is widely acknowledged.

Open innovation

Schemes of open innovation – partnerships between academia and industry – can help foster these interactions.

Typically, the academic scientists offer in-depth knowledge and expertise in an area of biology or for a drug target – a molecule in the body with which the drug specifically interacts leading to a therapeutic effect. The biotech or pharma company provides funding and resources, their experience of drug discovery and access to equipment and facilities.

In the case of the MRC/UCB Antibody Discovery Initiative, we offer academic researchers access to UCB’s antibody discovery platform. This provides a fantastic opportunity for an academic researcher to work with our antibody technology team. They’ll work together to find therapeutic antibodies, or reagent antibodies, to test in disease models.

For scientists in academia, such schemes can provide the chance to see, first-hand, how things operate in industry. They enable researchers to better understand some of the different challenges faced by industry. And they provide the opportunity to move work towards the clinic, where it could benefit patients.

Overcoming challenges together

Antibodies have become hugely successful drugs – in 2017 five of the top eight best-selling drugs globally were antibodies.

But the area has become very competitive. Many of the ‘simple’ targets with obvious biological and clinical relevance have now been addressed and antibodies commercialised, leaving a shortage of high-quality targets for antibody intervention.

The next generation of therapeutic antibodies will need to address targets with complex biology. This may mean making them more efficient at reaching difficult-to-access tissues. Or using innovative formats, including antibodies that can interact with more than one target. The challenges facing the industry are too big and multi-faceted to be overcome alone. The need for biotech and pharma companies to network and collaborate with academic experts is obvious.

Access to industry tech

For the scientist in academia, access to high-quality antibodies to help them understand their targets is very rarely straightforward. This is despite the fact that ‘hybridoma’ technology – the method to make large numbers of identical ‘monoclonal’ antibodies – is widely available.

Few – if any – researchers have access to the high-throughput or efficient immune sampling technologies necessary to generate therapeutic-quality antibodies, which work against their desired target.

This is where the MRC:UCB Antibody Discovery Initiative comes into play. It combines exclusive technology with automation and is a highly efficient way of sampling an immune response to discover rare antibodies.

Invitation to work together

One year on from the scheme’s launch, we’re working on an exciting project in the dermatology field with researchers from Oxford University. And we’re looking forward to working on more collaborative programmes from this year’s call for proposals.

As in many walks of life, our industry thrives on networking, integration and interdisciplinary working. This scheme helps promote these values. It offers a potential win-win for both participants, with the ultimate aim of providing better medicines for patients.

The closing date for applications is 3 October 2018. Find out how to apply to the MRC/UCB Antibody Discovery Initiative, launched in 2017.

What is biotechnology? Read the Story of César Milstein and Monoclonal Antibodies.

From tool to therapy: read our timeline of monoclonal antibody technology.

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