UCB hails 10 years of progress in biologics

UCB has marked ten years in the UK by unveiling new high-speed drug discovery at its Slough research centre.

The idea of mining the entire immune repertoire from nature’s B cells might once have seemed as fantastic as holidaying on the moon, but pharma drug discovery is now doing just that.

UCB is among the firms who have invested heavily in this field of research – robots at a new £3.4 million facility at its Slough research base are now in place and accelerating antibody discovery times.

The firm’s automated discovery technology is being used to screen B lymphocytes to identify antibodies which could be used in new medicines. The company predicts that the new technology could cut in half the time needed to discover a promising antibody.

The unveiling of this new robotic antibody discovery platform on 2 June marked ten years of UCB investment in the UK following its £1.5 billion ($2.4 billion) acquisition of biotech company Celltech in 2004. Since then, investment in the UK by the Brussels-headquartered company has risen from £84 million a year in 2003 to £142 million in 2012. Over the ten years, a total of £1.2 billion has been invested to make UCB the largest EU inward investor in life sciences research. The company now employs 700 people across five sites in the UK and Ireland, 400 of whom work in R&D.

This investment is evident in the Slough site’s facilities. A second lab showed how isolated antibodies are investigated by combinatorial chemistry experts to find and synthesise specific molecules that have some interaction with that protein. A third demonstrated how drugs can be shown to work, or not, in auto-immune diseases and a fourth showed how scientists are working to improve the binding characteristics of potential antibodies and small molecule drugs.

Biologics and small molecule expertise

UCB chief executive Roch Doliveux explained that the original vision when acquiring Celltech was to combine the latter’s expertise in large molecule chemistry with UCB’s existing work in small molecules. “The combination has proved more fruitful than we thought at the time,” he said as he ran through some recent successes in the company’s two focus areas, the central nervous system and diseases of the immune system (see UCB looks ahead to next phase) and reiterated UCB’s focus to be inspired by patients and driven by science.

In terms of the science, Ismail Kola, executive vice president of UCB and president of New Medicines, said the company’s productivity record is now the second highest in the industry. It is based on a policy of collaboration, genuine innovation rather than incremental improvements to existing drugs, and a risk-management strategy focused on one, better genetically validated targets and two, robust target interrogation. Kola said the company was engaged in more than 150 R&D collaborations.

Within the UK, such projects include a £3.6 million research project with Oxford University to develop medicines in immunology and neurology, another with Imperial College London in epilepsy research, and a £1 million investment over five years with Cyclofluidic, a company focused on designing and screening potential drug molecules against selected targets.

Patient involvement

Also speaking at the event was Graeme Johnston, a retired partner from accountancy firm PwC, and for the last eight years a rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patient. Graeme has become a patient advocate in RA, and a trustee of the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society (NRAS). He has also been a member of the UCB Scientific Advisory Board for Immunology since 2012, and spoke at the event about his experience as an advocate for better treatments for RA patients.

“The fact that I am the first person to speak today says a lot about how the company values input from patients,” he said before going on to explain that the illness struck suddenly when he was a partner with PwC in 2006. Within three years he had been forced to retire.

His accountancy training led to his being invited to become treasurer for the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society and from there to a seat on UCB’s advisory board. “I am sitting alongside scientists from around the world,” he said. “I value the fact my opinion is sought not only about treatments, but also about the intrusiveness of pills, the importance of primary versus secondary symptoms among other things.”

UK environment

Roch Doliveux outlined the factors which make a country attractive for investment. His five key success criteria were:

• Quality of the people and science

• Attractiveness of the local market

• Ability to access capital

• Taxation

• Active support from the government to foster good partnerships between academia and industry.

On all but the second the UK scored well. Graeme Johnston responded on the question of medicines access. “In this country you [the patient] only get a biologic for RA if you score above 5.2 on a disease activity score that is an algorithm that takes account of the state of 28 joints,” he said. “Otherwise you get conventional therapies. Over ten years, the severe patient is doing better than the person who scores less, because the new drugs put out the fire rather than merely water it down.”

While highlighting these concerns about access to medicines, UCB also reaffirmed its commitment to the UK. The next 10 years are likely to bring further great advances in biopharma R&D, while UCB’s pipeline could bring about rapid growth, depending on how successfully the firm can convert its early discoveries into medicines for patients.


UCB looks ahead to next phase


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