London’s life sciences scene upbeat as 2024 conference season begins

life sciences upbeat

With 2024 well under way, influential conferences in London have given a barometer reading on the conditions in the European biopharma market, reports Richard Staines.

The Anglonordic Life Science conference, the Charing Cross Symposium, and LSX World Congress gave an opportunity for networking and behind-the-scenes deals, while thought leaders gave their verdict on research achievements and the financial environment that makes this possible.

And the good news is that, after a fairly despondent 2023, the financial headwinds have begun to ease.

While there’s amazing science in Europe, and the right support for companies in the early stages of development, a move to the US, or a sale to big pharma, is usually necessary to achieve significant growth as biotechs and pharma companies mature.

The message from the investors at the conferences was of optimism, although for those firms looking to get listed, particularly outside the US in markets like AIM, is that valuations are not going to be spectacular.

Roel Bulthuis, managing partner at Syncona, told a panel of investors at the Anglonordic Life Science conference at the end of April that getting listed and raising funds on public markets is not for the faint-hearted.

While IPOs are beginning to come back on stream after being almost absent in 2023, pharma and biotech companies must carefully think through their messages to investors to gain traction, build value, and stand out from the competition.

Bulthuis said: “When you get there, you are going to be competing for capital against companies that are undervalued, have liquid funding, and are much more advanced than ’you’.

“It’s about creating an equity story that is competitive.”

Hakan Goker, managing director of M Ventures and conference founder, agreed. In an interview on the sidelines of the conference, he said: “There is a shift of money towards late-stage investments, which is expected, but it is very good to see there is a significant level of interest in early stage exciting science that is being financed.”

Similar sentiments were expressed at BioTrinity, the annual conference for life sciences membership organisation OBN.

Looking beyond amyloid in Alzheimer's

The Anglonordic conference shone a spotlight on some of the groundbreaking scientific achievements that are beginning to change the lives of people with serious diseases such as Alzheimer’s and rare genetic diseases.

A panel discussing neurodegeneration reflected on the recent progress in Alzheimer’s following the controversial FDA approval and then discontinuation of Biogen’s Aduhelm (aducanumab), followed by Biogen/Eisai’s Leqembi (lecanemab).

Both of these drugs target amyloid, which forms plaques in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s and has long been a target for pharma companies aiming to slow or stop progression of the disease.

They were among the first to show efficacy in the clinic after countless failed attempts to target amyloid and there was a stimulating discussion about where to focus future research.

After so many failed trials, it’s now pretty clear that targeting amyloid alone is unlikely to produce the kind of clinical results that scientists and patients are craving.

According to Jane Osbourn, chief scientific officer at Alchemab, a Cambridge-UK based antibody discovery biotech, the amyloid research provides a foundation for further treatments.

Alchemab’s research involves finding antibodies present that confer a protective effect from hard-to-treat diseases.

Once these antibodies are identified, Alchemab looks at how they work and which targets they are interacting with, an approach that is the reverse of other drug discovery companies.

The antibodies that Alchemab has identified so far are not related to amyloid, although Osbourn was quick to point out that this did not mean that amyloid is not playing a role in development of the disease.

Osbourn said, following the discussion: “We had a lot of discussion around amyloid and ideas around neuroinflammation, cell metabolism, and neuronal health - I think that’s where the field is going.

“We are at the start of something now and we need to build on it together.”

Asceneuron’s CEO, Barbara Angehrn, gave a run-down of the company’s efforts to target tau, a misfolded protein found within the neurons of people with Alzheimer's disease. Unlike amyloid plaques that exist outside of neurons and can be targeted by monoclonal antibodies, tau lies within cells and is best addressed by small molecules that can reach across the blood brain barrier and cell membrane.

With two small molecule O-GlcNAcase (OGA) inhibitors in Phase I clinical development and its lead asset, ASN51, progressing into Phase II development later this year, progress is steady, said Angehrn. “Things are not going to change overnight,” she added.

Paul Little, CEO of Vesper Bio, added there is likely to be a spectrum of different causes for each different disease, in the same way that there are many different drivers of cancer. It points towards a more personalised approach to neurodegenerative diseases in the future.

“Biotechs are getting an understanding of the kind of interventions that are going to make the biggest difference,” he said.

In the field of rare diseases, some landmark approvals in recent years, starting with the first viral vector-based therapies to the more recent gene editing technology, give real hope for powerful and possibly curative therapies.

SpliceBio CEO Miquel Vila-Perello said: “I think there is a lot of excitement in cell and gene therapy, a lot of hopes for new treatments. At the same time, there are lots of important challenges on the manufacturing, regulatory and clinical development side.”

“Silicon Valley syndrome” affecting US medtech valuations

Meanwhile, at LSX, a dedicated medtech stream gave insight into the challenges facing start-ups in this market.

The advice from one panel was to ensure that the goals of investors match those of your business and aim for a situation where both sides are clear about when a new company will begin to turn a profit.

Arnaud Vincent, managing director at Eurazeo, said: “You have investors who can put up for many years without profits. If the fund you are talking to is more private equity driven, it will demand to reach profitability within a shorter time.”

The issue of valuations also arose, with Philip Lavin, co-founder of Melior Capital Management, saying he prefers to invest in European medtech business because of the “Silicon Valley syndrome” that comes with so many US-based firms.

US-based Lavin said he is a fan of investing in European medtech firms because it is much easier to agree on a price.

“Where there is overvaluation, it is much more difficult to deal with. Here [in Europe], it is much easier to work out a deal,” he said.

After attending the Charing Cross Symposium 23rd-25th April, Eliane Schutte, CEO of vascular implants specialist Xeltis, summarised the challenges facing medtech firms who have technology on trial in clinics.

Her verdict from the event, now held at London’s ExCeL centre, is that trials are also moving across the Atlantic, although for slightly different reasons.

She said: “In terms of European medtech clinical trials, there are difficulties regarding country specific requirements, and this is perhaps why we are seeing trials moving out of Europe to the US. There is also a lack of innovation, with limited novel technologies actually making it to trials, and this is severely affecting patients with unmet medical needs.”

Despite the challenges faced in 2023, particularly concerning financial constraints, there's a palpable sense of relief as life sciences head into a brighter and more positive 2024.

Richard Staines
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Richard Staines