As cancer treatments evolve, so must investment mechanisms

Last month’s American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) meeting kicked off with a presentation from Professor Ruth Plummer, a medical oncologist from Newcastle in the UK who, in 2003, was the first person to write a prescription for a new class of drugs – PARP inhibitors – for a woman with ovarian cancer.

That prescription marked the beginning-of-the-end of a 30-year journey, from laboratory discoveries through to a drug tested in dozens of clinical trials and a subsequent FDA approval. This class of drugs, of which there are now many, is treating an ever-widening range of cancer types.

This is a great success story, set to deliver benefits to thousands of patients worldwide. But, like many such tales, it took too long. Early stage drugs can pass through the hands of several companies. Progress is at the mercy of market trends, internal capacity, internal flagbearers and so on. The average drug discovery and development time is still over 10 years.

“Great innovation is typically found at an interface, and collaboration and innovation across these boundaries must be encouraged”

With rates on the rise, cancer poses formidable challenges to society. We desperately need new ways to diagnose, treat and care for people affected by this terrible disease. The good news is that our understanding of cancer is exploding. Predominantly funded by governments, industry and research charities like Cancer Research UK, researchers continue to shine a light on to the disease’s darkest secrets. We’re learning how cancers evolve, evade our own immune systems and develop resistance to treatments. Translating this explosion of scientific knowledge into new therapies must be a global priority. We need to go faster, when we fail we need to do so faster and more cheaply, and we need more innovation to overcome the complexity of cancer itself. We need to take more risks.

Great innovation is typically found at an interface – be that between different scientific disciplines such chemistry and biology, be it between nations, or be it between sectors such as industry, academia and venture capital. Collaboration and innovation across these boundaries must be encouraged – it underpins the UK’s Life Sciences Industrial Strategy and is the idea behind Cancer Research UK’s global Grand Challenge competition.

The importance of these interfaces has been recognised by industry – hence the clustering of big pharma around academic hotbeds in Boston MA, or Cambridge UK – but huge swathes of academic science remains untapped and unpartnered.  This is where, with the help of risk-taking venture capitalists, we can build on the renaissance in biotech, spinning small, agile start-ups out of academia or the charity sector (Cancer Research UK has recently completed its 33rd spin out).

But getting biotech start-ups off the ground in the first place can prove challenging. Investors can tend to focus within their home regions, whereas research is increasingly global and collaborative. We need VC to follow suit to help us meet the toughest problems in oncology.

The US has a much deeper pool of capital available for early stage biotech development than is typically seen within the UK. This creates early scale, pace and incredible momentum that is so crucial in advancing increasingly complex therapeutics.  We’ve seen examples of promising UK start-ups spending more than a year raising sufficient capital in series A or B, while US counterparts are up and running in one go, advancing to the clinic more rapidly as a result.

Here at Cancer Research UK we’ve been thinking about solutions to these challenges. As one of world’s leading licensors of oncology IP, we have a clear mandate from our donors to translate scientific discovery into improvements for patients as rapidly as we can. We’ve recently renewed our focus on nurturing entrepreneurialism among academic researchers, holding a series of Innovation Summits, and we’ve embarked on a series of major drug discovery alliances with companies like Ono, Celgene and AstraZeneca.

We’ve also looked hard at the investment environment available to researchers whose work has commercial potential, and at mechanisms to foster early dialogue and interaction between researchers and the investment community. This week we’ve launched a partnership with a leading healthcare investment firm, SV Health Investors, in a biotech-focused venture capital fund, to foster spin outs in oncology and more broadly in life sciences, with the objective of developing new medicines for patients. We will take this initiative further, continuing to exploit market opportunities in therapeutics, and areas such as diagnostics, devices and emerging data companies.

The industry needs to ensure the fruits of the UK’s world-class research environment reach the people who need them most, as quickly as possible – and for this to happen proactivity and collaboration from pharma companies, investors and third sector organisations is key. It can be a difficult road at times, but the outcomes are well worth it, both for the health of the sector and the wellbeing of patients.

About the Author

Dr Iain Foulkes is executive director of research and innovation at Cancer Research UK