Conference at Alderley Park demonstrates strength of North’s oncology sector


Dr Chris Doherty, managing director of Alderley Park

Cancer drug development is evolving rapidly, and that the North of England is at the forefront of this progress was made evident at the second Bionow Oncology Conference, which took place at Alderley Park on Wednesday 13th February. The conference is fast becoming a pivotal event for key figures within the northern, national and indeed global cancer research arena, providing a critical opportunity to meet potential collaborators and discuss the next steps in research and development.

It was apparent at the event that most major drug makers are currently focussing on immuno-oncology drugs. Generally, these drugs work by triggering the immune system, enabling it to recognize cancer cells and destroy them. Such drugs can achieve unprecedented efficacy in a broad range of cancers and are paving the way for an array of cancer therapies that harness similar mechanisms.

By bringing together academics, SMEs, larger firms and many other parties to discuss immuno-oncology and other innovations within the industry, we present those attending with the chance to make connections that could prove instrumental in creating new life saving drugs. The event mirrored the culture that we’ve tried to generate at Alderley Park – supporting, curious, respectful but dynamic and determined.

Oncology is a major strength for Alderley Park, and research into cancer treatments has been a key focus of the site throughout its 50 year history. Tamoxifen and Arimidex are both vital breast cancer drugs that AstraZeneca brought to market while based here, and they are still being used to treat patients today. Bruntwood Sci-Tech’s aim, as the new owners of the site, has been to continue that legacy, and this conference is a key way for us to do just that.

It was a real honour to have Johnson Lau, chief executive officer of Athenex, deliver the event’s keynote speech. Headquartered in the USA, Athenex is one of the world’s leaders in developing innovative cancer therapies, and it was great to hear him praise the unrivalled oncology network we have in Manchester.

This was evidenced during a presentation by Fiona Thistlethwaite, medical oncology consultant at The Christie, who shared details of the iMATCH (Innovate Manchester Advanced Therapy Centre Hub) consortium, which aims to recruit 260 patients to clinical trials in advanced therapies.

During Mr Lau’s speech he said “Anytime we have a problem, we call Manchester”. This was pleasing to hear, but not surprising - I am well aware of the vast talent we have at Alderley Park. We have 60 SMEs based here and over 200 currently in start-up or virtual mode. Many of these are oncology focused or operate elsewhere in the supply chain, and we have a steady stream of companies making great strides in getting drugs to market.

Combine that with the clinical expertise at The Christie – the largest single site cancer centre in Europe – and the academic prowess of the University of Manchester and Cancer Research UK - now based at Alderley Park - and it results in a synergistic relationship with local bodies throughout Greater Manchester and the North that will result in continuous improvement for all parties and, ultimately, patients.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the Park is witnessing the willingness to collaborate of the many different people and organisations that are based here. Ultimately, oncology research is a team sport and its success relies upon the ability to leave egos at the door and contribute to other people’s projects.

Our set up has also allowed companies based here, such as the Medicines Discovery Catapult, to support neighbouring SMEs at Alderley Park. The Medicines Discovery Catapult is a national facility connecting the UK research community in order to accelerate innovative drug discovery through through sharing of expertise and access to emerging pre-clinical technologies. At the conference, representatives from this inspiring organisation presented some wonderful examples that demonstrated the significant impact of their work with SMEs, industry and academia.

Another recent success story at Alderley Park is Redx Pharma, which works in therapeutics - its current immuno-oncology asset, RXC004 Porcupine, is expected to enter human trials in 2020. RXC004 could be used as a combination partner in treating non-small cell lung cancer, melanoma and colorectal cancer, and could also potentially be used as a biomarker-guided targeted therapy in genetically defined cancers, including colorectal, pancreatic, biliary and gastric.

It’s a source of huge pride to see Alderley Park spearheading innovations such as this, and I hope the attendees of the conference were inspired by the day’s programme. Survival rates in the UK have more than doubled over the past fourty years and for a number of cancers – such as breast and skin – more than eight out of ten people diagnosed will overcome the disease. The North of England has played a key role in improving these rates and we’re in a better position than ever to make more crucial progress.

At Alderley Park we have a well-established network driven by collaboration, but there will always be space for others to join us. I hope that everyone who attended the Bionow Oncology Conference will discuss what they learned at the event with colleagues, and take the next step towards tapping into our region’s unrivalled ecosystem in order to make the connection that could drive forward life saving new medicines.

Katie Droogan