Industrial strength research
24 Nov 2015
It was once rare for industry and academic scientists to mix – but developing treatments for patients requires a much closer relationship between the two sectors than ever before. Sarah Harrop explores some of the ways in which the MRC is working with industry to improve both our health and wealth.
Professor Dave Jones of Newcastle University is quite clear on why academic and industry researchers need to work together: “If you’re going to move your science forward to benefit patients, you have to work with industry at some point ― because ultimately, drug companies make drugs.”
This is something of which he has first-hand experience. Two years ago, the MRC awarded £5m to a consortium of industry and academic researchers led by Dave. This money, part of a wider MRC investment of £60m in similar ‘stratified medicine’ consortia, was to investigate whether a rare liver disease called primary biliary cirrhosis (PBC) ― for which only one, partly effective treatment existed ― could be better treated by grouping patients by their genetics and biological characteristics.
Today, ten companies ― from small biotechs to pharma giants ― are involved in the collaboration. Results from a major phase II trial of a new drug for PBC led by GlaxoSmithKline are eagerly awaited, and other major deals are in the pipeline. Partnerships are also in place with other Newcastle University research groups investigating fatty liver disease as a result of Dave introducing his industry contacts to research colleagues “just down the corridor”.
What’s more, US-based company Intercept Pharmaceuticals, which has been involved in the consortium from the start, now undertakes all its manufacturing in the North-East of England, facilitated by the close links it has developed with the university.
It’s a great success story both for people with liver disease and for UK medical research. So what are the attractions for pharma companies of working with MRC-funded researchers like Dave?
Taking the risk out of research
Discovering new treatments for disease is getting trickier. Blockbuster drugs are a thing of the past and much of the low-hanging fruit of drug discovery has already been picked. To find new treatments we need to understand more about the complex biology of human disease and why some patients respond to particular drugs and others do not.
Academic scientists have the freedom to explore such questions without commercial pressures. But only companies have the financial muscle, expertise and capabilities to make drugs. So an ‘ecosystem’ is emerging in the UK in which the industry, the MRC and other funders and the NHS are working together to bring new treatments to patients faster.
And of course, the MRC has a long history of supporting nascent approaches and ideas before they are sufficiently well-established for industry to risk investment. For example, pioneering MRC-funded work on the development of monoclonal antibodies in the 1970s has since spawned a multi-billion dollar global drugs market.
The UK ecosystem offers trial expertise to global pharma companies that can’t be found anywhere else. Dave explains: “Industry are terrified of failure of a drug at a late phase of development. It all hinges on a well-designed phase II trial with the right intellectual input at the beginning – so part of what we offer is basically high level input into trial concept and design.”
“Also, having a full health economics model is like catnip to industry – that’s what they need to get beyond drug licensing through into market and reimbursement. Building that in makes these diseases look more tractable. Then we tell them that here in the UK we have the UK Clinical Research Network, the capacity to network centres, expertise in trial design ― and companies will sign on the bottom line.”
And Dave also says that the MRC ‘brand’ was critical in attracting early interest from pharma companies: “It allowed us to bring people together and say ‘we are supported by the MRC to do this’ ― it made us look official and impressive and it got people to believe that we could deliver what we were saying we could.”
Old drugs, new uses
The MRC has led the way in finding new approaches to link up academic and industry researchers. Three years ago, in a pioneering deal with AstraZeneca (AZ), 15 projects were funded in which groups of academic researchers are investigating alternative uses for compounds that are no longer being developed by the company.
Dr Richard Mead’s group at the University of Sheffield was among the first to get involved in the project when it was launched in 2012. They are using a drug originally developed for Alzheimer’s disease by AZ ― but subsequently abandoned ― for a new purpose: to investigate a cell-signalling process which they suspect is involved in motor neurone disease (MND). Richard says he’s “hopeful” about what they have discovered so far from studies in mice.
Gaining access to AZ’s resources, expertise and toxicity data for the compound they are using has given the group a great head start, and he is confident that it will allow them to get definitive answers to questions they’ve been chasing for many years: “With the pharmacological knowledge and support of AZ and the data we’ve generated on this project we’ll be able to say definitively that this pathway isn’t worth pursuing any longer if it doesn’t work. Or conversely, if it does work we’ll have enough data to continue down the line of doing studies in patients.”
Naturally, AZ gain from the deal too. The company has the rights to buy an exclusive exploitation licence to the results and any intellectual property arising if the results of the work look promising, and access to information they couldn’t get anywhere else, says Richard: “At the University of Sheffield we are experts in our animal models. Most drug companies wouldn’t have deep knowledge of the preclinical model systems for a disease like MND ― it just wouldn’t be worth their while to invest in that over many years. But we can describe in detail how we will execute a study for a particular drug, depending on the pathway that it’s targeting.”
A host of other MRC schemes exist to encourage scientists from both sectors to collaborate openly towards a shared aim of improving health (see text box). Most recently, research teams from five UK universities joined forces with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) researchers through the £16m EMINENT network to look at the underlying biological mechanisms behind inflammatory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and fibrosis.
At the time GSK‘s President of Pharmaceuticals R&D, Patrick Vallance, explained the company’s motivation to sign up to the deal: “At GSK, we believe that alongside the cutting-edge research our own scientists are leading, we also have much to learn from researchers outside our walls. We believe that by sharing our resources and research during the early stages of research we can stimulate innovation within the scientific community, strengthen our understanding of human disease and accelerate the development of new treatments for patients. We need to embrace opportunities to work together and share information about our successes and failures.
“The MRC’s EMINENT initiative is a great way for us to do precisely this, allowing us to work alongside scientists from five top UK universities to drive forward our collective understanding of inflammatory disease, and we’re confident this unique approach will make us better able to develop innovative new treatments in the future.”
Six other ways we work with industry
- The MRC/Industry Asset Sharing Initiative was launched in 2014 with AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Lilly, Pfizer, Takeda and UCB. This gave UK academic researchers access to 68 deprioritised compounds to examine the pathways involved in human disease and find new treatments.
- The MRC and Innovate UK Biomedical Catalyst supports bench to bedside research where projects are planned to achieve specific milestones ― allowing over 50 new drugs to be tested in people for the first time.
- Dementias Platform UK brings together world experts and cutting-edge technology to speed up progress in dementia research and involves six industry partners.
- TheMRC/UCB Pharma Technology Platform Access programme grants university scientists access to leading technologies to discover new monoclonal antibodies for research and developing new treatments.
- The MRC/AstraZeneca Centre for Lead Discovery is a unique partnership giving UK academic researchers free access to AstraZeneca’s 1.9 million chemical compound library and associated high throughput robotic equipment.
The MRC/GSK asthma alliance with Imperial College London is investigating the interplay between allergy and viral infection in acute asthma attacks.
To read about the grant(s) that funded this research, please see Gateway to Research reference: MR/L001489/1, MR/K015273/1.