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Developing the next generation of cancer drugs - we need to work together to succeed

Posted on 11 December, 2013 by Eva Sharpe
These are challenging times for the pharmaceutical industry.

Our pharmaceutical companies have established themselves as world leaders in research and development over the last 50 years, but in the last decade financial pressures have increased sharply.

So what can pharmaceutical companies do to remain competitive in this era of rising costs, and to develop new medicines to replace the blockbusters that are coming off patent? And what can academic institutes – such as The Institute of Cancer Research, London – do to support drug discovery? These themes were explored at the Financial Times Pharmaceuticals and Biotechnology Conference last week, where one of the speakers was our Deputy Chief Executive, Professor Paul Workman.

First, the conference heard a little about the financial pressures the pharmaceutical industry is under. It now costs more than £1 billion to take a drug market.  A move towards targeted drugs means that medicine no longer focuses on ‘one size fits all’ treatments for large markets and companies can no longer recoup these expensive upfront costs.  On top of this, top-selling drugs are coming out of their patent protection period, and the UK now has significant competition from emerging economies such as Brazil, Russia, India and China.

These various financial pressures have led to significant reshaping of the pharmaceutical industry, with several of the more traditional large pharma companies downsizing here in the UK over the last few years. This has led to some pretty serious concerns over whether the UK can remain internationally competitive – and continue to develop new drugs that we need. The conference session focused on the skills that the sector needs to succeed in this.

A key point raised was the importance of building partnerships and networks; pharmaceutical companies don’t need to carry out all of the work themselves. Drug discovery is a complex ecosystem, involving not just big pharmaceutical companies, but also smaller biotechnology firms, and academic institutions such as The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), as well as charity funders, private investors and the research councils. To respond constructively to changes in the industry, all partners in the ecosystem need to change and adapt. As the commercial part of the ecosystem becomes more averse to risk, innovation from the non-profit organisations like the ICR becomes even more crucial, as does funding from charities like Cancer Research UK and Wellcome Trust, the research councils and philanthropy. The key to getting new drugs out to patients is to create a commercial opportunity for pharma or biotech investment partners, and this needs funding to push developments through to a stage where companies are happy to invest.

At the ICR we have hands-on experience across each phase of drug discovery and development – from identifying and validating targets through to discovering drug candidates, all the way to clinical trials and approval. We have seen drugs through from start to finish, including abiraterone, a life-extending prostate cancer drug which has transformed care for advanced prostate cancer, and we’ve played a major role in developing AUY922, an inhibitor for a drug target that we pioneered at the ICR. Both of these new approaches to targeted therapy were initially seen by industry as very high-risk, but as a non-profit organisation, the ICR was able to champion them and cross the so-called “innovation gap”. In  both cases ICR worked alone to push the projects forward through to proof of concept, then worked closely with a biotech company and finally ensured that the drugs were picked up by big Pharma to accelerate patient benefit. We’re going to need innovative models like this more and more in the future if we are going to continue to succeed in drug discovery and development.

The panel also discussed some of the skills, knowledge and expertise in drug discovery and development that we need to safeguard.  What the session highlighted was that as well as the more specific skills such as medicinal chemistry, in vivo pharmacology, clinical pharmacology and translational medicine which the industry traditionally values, broader multidisciplinary and collaborative skills and understanding are becoming increasingly critical.

Professor Workman stressed the importance of developing a cultural understanding across the different sectors and how the movement of people between them can play an important part. Professor Workman’s own background spans work in academia, at a large pharmaceutical company and with several smaller biotech firms, and this range of experience has been incredibly valuable in leading the ICR’s drug discovery activities.

At the end of the conference session, the panel chair asked each speaker what they felt were the key skills needed for the future of drug discovery.  Professor Workman stressed the importance of being entrepreneurial, and championing bold and innovative scientific ideas with energy and focus.  The enthusiasm, determination and focus on patient benefit of Paul and his colleagues has been a major factor in achieving our strong track record of drug discovery at the ICR.  I’m sure whatever the pharmaceutical sector looks like in future, our research will continue to play an important part in it.


For more information you can watch a video of the session on the Financial Times Live website


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