How SMEs are helping fight the battle against cancer

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Chris Doherty, Managing Director, Alderley Park

Wishful thinking, the act of imagining success before you have actually achieved it has never had much of a place in science.  Everyone knows that facts and evidence are the basis of progress. And yet when tackling some of society’s biggest challenges, such as improving cancer survival rates, we can’t overlook the human factors in the process of discovery, understanding and decision-making.

During the course of the last 10 years most of the major players in pharma have overhauled their approach to R&D. Overall spending is said to have remained at roughly $70 billion a year, but where that resource gets deployed continues to change. One of the many reasons that’s happening is because attitudes have changed to the ‘in-house only’ R&D orthodoxy.  Outsourcing and partnering are seen as key to innovation.

Reformatting how the industry does R&D has not been without drama, sparking everything from top level executive departures at one end of the scale, to IPOs and intense interest from venture capitalists in start-ups and scale-ups at the other. This change is delivering a new generation of small, lean pharma businesses that are helping big pharma carry the mantle of improving health outcomes for us all.  

Pharma remains fascinated by this evolutionary picture. It’s commonplace to hear the view that the in-house only model did not produce enough quality drug candidates. Too many projects failed in Phase III trials. Or the reflection that cultural problems can develop in very large R&D-focused organisations. By which they mean pet projects are given too much focus - and project leaders, or even CEOs, too much scope to believe their own wishful thinking.

How does outsourcing to SMEs provide value in cancer research or any other therapeutic area? The most obvious point is that the psychology and analysis tend to be different in a buying scenario.  If you are looking at acquiring a specific program or even an entire company one might imagine there is going to be clarity and hard-nosed objectivity about values and actual progress.

Within the overall picture of R&D spending, what has remained constant is that fighting cancer remains the paramount goal for the industry, whether you work in a start-up or for a firm on the global stage.  

The reasons for the dominance of cancer are not difficult to grasp.  Cancer really does touch most of our lives and is hugely impactful in global public health, claiming upwards of 8 million lives a year. Cancer is also an illness whose prevalence increases towards older age. With the demographic reality that people are living longer, the demand for therapies will only grow.  

This focus has only been sharpened by the progress in many guises that’s improving cancer survival rates. Long anticipated breakthroughs in immuno-oncology, for example, have started to materialise. They have inspired what the well-read industry commentator John Carroll describes as ‘gold rush’ levels of interest in immuno-oncology. For some though, attention is turning to what comes next.

In terms of evidence, you only have to look at the industry’s biggest players. Roche, for instance, invests 90% of its R&D budget on pharmaceuticals, the balance going to diagnostics. Oncology is the largest part of its budget and accounts for about half of its pharma R&D spending.

Some of that will doubtless be invested in buying or partnering with SMEs and academia. We have 61 SMEs at Alderley Park, and another 150 in start-up or virtual mode and which are all part of the new generation.  Many of them are oncology-focused and all have a global market focus.   

Redx Pharma, for instance, sold one of its cancer assets last year, a BTK inhibitor drug development program for USD40 million to the American company, Loxo Oncology.  Redx has an immuno-oncology asset, RXC004 Porcupine, that entered Phase 1 trials this week.

Other oncology-focused therapeutics start-up businesses include BiVictriX, which is developing ADC drugs that tackle antigens on the surface of cancer cells – it’s a more targeted form of therapy, be that chemotherapy or immuno-oncology.

One of the challenges with ADCs is that many of them target antigens that are also present on the surface of healthy cells. Toxicity is a huge issue. BiVictriX is working to develop an ADC that targets two types of antigens that are only present on cancer cells, specifically cancer cells found in Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML).

Some 90 per cent of adults with leukaemia have AML. It is a problematic cancer to treat as it is in the blood and not a tumour in one area of the body. The five-year survival rate is just 26 per cent – compared to 90 per cent for breast cancer and 98 per cent for prostate cancer. At the moment a patient with AML is given the strongest and most toxic chemotherapy. As many of them are over 65, they do not make it and even the younger patients can struggle. If they do survive the chemotherapy, the next phase of treatment is a bone marrow transplant which requires four months in hospital at a huge cost to the NHS. If BiVictriX could develop this targeted therapy for AML it could potentially be a complete game-changer for the treatment of this type of cancer.

Alderley Park is additionally home to a selection of CROs such as Concept Life Sciences, Gentronix, and Hematogenix, which also have an oncology focus. Many of these companies are featuring in a forthcoming conference at Alderley Park – the first to explore the strengths in the discovery, development and manufacture of cancer medicines in the North of England.

The one day event, which is billed as Accelerating Cancer Drug Development - From Target to Patients has been organised by Bionow, the North of England life science industry group, and takes place at the Alderley Park Conference Centre on February 27th.  The programme features a broad range of renowned organisations working to improve patient outcomes, including The Christie Hospital, Manchester - the largest single site cancer centre in Europe, which treats more than 44,000 patients a year.

One of the two keynote addresses will be given by Professor Rob Bristow, a world authority on prostate cancer who took over as Director of the University of Manchester’s Manchester Cancer Research Centre (MCRC) last year.

Dr Susan Galbraith, Vice President of Oncology at AstraZeneca, which developed a breakthrough lung cancer drug Tagrisso with one of the fastest development programmes in pharmaceutical history, will also address the conference.

It also features experts from ApconiX, Quay Pharma, NewGene, The Medicines Discovery Catapult, the University of Sheffield and The Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute (CRUKMI).

If you’d like to attend, please visit this link

Katie Droogan