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Advancing Drug Discovery Through Academic–Industry Collaboration

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The Milner Therapeutics Institute

Genestack recently announced that they were joining the Milner Therapeutics Institute. Genestack, a bioinformatics company, will support the management, aggregation and analysis of data generated by both academic and pharmaceutical partners. The institute’s mission is to convert scientific research into promising therapies, connecting academic and industry sectors, enabling successful collaborative research ventures, and accelerating the creation of new biotech companies with a therapeutic focus.

In light of the announcement, we spoke to Prof. Tony Kouzarides, Director of the Milner Therapeutics Institute and Dr. Misha Kapushesky, Founder and CEO of Genestack, to learn more about the institute, the new partnership, its impact on drug development, the importance of collaboration, and challenges within the drug discovery field. 

Drug discovery: An academic perspective

Laura Mason (LM): The Therapeutics Consortium, could you tell us more about this?

Tony Kouzarides (TK): The Milner Therapeutics Consortium has been active since June 2015 and is based on a research agreement signed by three academic centres in Cambridge and seven pharmaceutical companies. The agreement facilitates rapid exchange of reagents and information and underpins research collaborations leading to publication. We are also exploring pre-competitive research projects with multiple pharmaceutical partners within the Consortium.

LM: How did the Milner Therapeutics Institute come about? Did you ever imagine that the Milner Institute would evolve to include 66 affiliates?

TK: The Milner Therapeutics Institute was co-founded by Dr. Jonathan Milner, a benefactor of the research laboratories and myself. It was the result of a conversation about the need to break down the barriers to academic/industry collaboration and ensure that ground breaking academic research was converted into new therapies. I am really pleased with our progress so far. I like to move things quickly and the Milner has grown rapidly because the need for such an alliance and Institute in Cambridge has been readily recognized by our 66 affiliated partners.

LM: The Milner Institute aims is to connect, enable and accelerate research. Could you tell me a little more about the specific strategies being developed to enables this?

TK: We proactively partner industry scientists to academic researchers who are working in their areas of interest. These partners are identified through a wide range of sources including our own know-how of research in Cambridge and our Innovation Representatives, a grassroots network of early-career scientists interested in therapeutic research. We provide support to projects that result from these interactions from contract negotiation to project management to ensure the project is a success. In 2018, we will also have our own research labs to accelerate proof of concept projects into biotech companies by providing space for research in an environment fueled by industry/academic interactions.

LM: What challenges is the Milner expecting, and what solutions will it put in place to solve them?

TK: We aim to create a collaborative environment at the interface of academia and industry where scientists from different academic labs and different companies will work pre-competitively to improve disease models and develop new therapeutic approaches. The challenge is that this is a new model and we are having to develop new operational processes and create an environment that keeps the spirit of collaboration and entrepreneurship as a core value. We need to keep the vision at the heart of all we do and make sure the processes enable the vision rather than restrict the vision. Our solution is to compromise, be flexible in our approach and most importantly of all, maintain good relationships. 

Drug discovery: An industry perspective

LM: How important is the collaboration between academic researchers and pharmaceutical industries for the development of drugs?

Misha Kapushesky (MK): Drug development is an extremely complex, expensive and slow process. To increase the rate of drug discovery, many pharma companies are turning to external partnerships which includes academic institutions to provide innovative ideas. Academic institutions lack resources necessary to push a compound through the candidate validation pipeline and partnerships with the pharmaceutical industry are often the only way to avoid publicly funded discoveries gathering dust on the shelves. Today, the academia-pharma collaborations are mostly crucial at the stage of identification and selection of drug candidates. In bioinformatics, academics are leading the way in developing algorithms that play a crucial role in drug discovery. Genestack, as a biodata platform provider for discovery scientists, made a commitment to develop an open platform. If there are academic and commercial organizations who want to collaborate, they can easily do so: our solution is on the cloud, with an open API, meaning people can share data and develop applications on top of our platform and plug in third party tools provided by their collaborators and partners.

LM: What challenges do you foresee in large scale collaborations, especially between industry and research, and how do you think they can be solved?

MK: In any large-scale collaborations between industry and academia there will be challenges associated with lack of transparency and lack of funding.

In terms of transparency, large collaborations have struggled with the issues of IP protection, as pharmaceutical companies are less willing to share their data and their previous findings than their academic partners. Genestack's platform facilitates collaboration as it comes with many functions that enable users to control access to data within and across organizational boundaries; this helps mitigate risk associated with data confidentiality breaches in complex collaborations.

Another obstacle stems from differences in how pharmaceutical companies and academia perceive success. Most academic investigators are focused on the constant need to publish papers to receive funding. On the other hand, pharma rely solely on finding more and more potential drug candidates. Some researchers have pointed at this misunderstanding of each other’s principal goals as being one of the key factor slowing down the process of industry-academia collaboration.

Also, we can’t forget about the struggle of the lack of adequate funding in academia, which in turns translates to constraints in bringing cutting edge technology or science to the table, making academic institutions less desirable partners for pharmaceutical companies. Government grants can assist with this, and at Genestack we have successfully partnered with academic organizations to win grants to deliver solutions to the scientific community.

LM: What would you consider to be the greatest challenges within the field of drug discovery? How can the institute help overcome these challenges?

MK: At the moment one of the biggest challenges, within the field of drug discovery is the fact that there are so many different technologies around and each has its own interface, data format, and lives in a silos. Pharma companies struggle with a lot of legacy systems that have to be supported and maintained. Using an open system that can be modified, expanded or used as a part of an ecosystem alongside other solutions, as the needs of the company evolve would represent a significant improvement. As highlighted in a recent report, nearly 90% of life sciences executives believe that engaging in ecosystems of partners to develop and commercialize innovative products is critical for success. To achieve this, different technologies must be flexible and open, to allow the formation of these ecosystems that have a potential to speed up pharma R&D programs and effectively, reduce time-to-market and improve patient care.

Lastly, a key challenge for pharma is how much it costs to bring one drug into the market. The median per-drug R&D spending of companies that develop more than 6 drugs in a 10-year period is $5.8 billion. Pharma companies worldwide are investing more and more of their resources into multi-omics R&D with a hope to increase the efficiency of their R&D processes and drive the overall costs down. Of course, with bigger investments into multi-omics, challenges of handling data are more important than ever. Companies like Genestack are working towards providing pharma with tools to automate many of these processes and help the discovery scientists to extract knowledge from big data. Moreover, the fact that the Genestack Platform can be run on the cloud can significantly reduce computational cost.

Academia will not help the industry with the financial problems of drug development. However, academics can contribute enormously in the areas of new candidate discovery as well as in developing algorithms to better analyze big data. The Milner Institute’s mission is to enable collaborative research projects throughout the Cambridge area and accelerate formation of new biotechs with a therapeutic outlook. Genestack is looking forward to being part of these new ventures and providing expertise on creating collaborative discovery biodata ecosystems.

Kouzarides and Kapushesky were speaking to Laura Elizabeth Mason, Science Editor for Technology Networks. 


Prof. Tony Kouzarides
Tony Kouzarides is Professor of Cancer Biology at the University of Cambridge, Deputy Director of the Gurdon Institute and Director of the Milner Therapeutics Institute.Tony did his PhD at the University of Cambridge and postdoctoral work at MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology on the cancer inducing potential of human cytomegalovirus. He then went to NYU Medical Center in New York where he worked on the c-Fos onco-protein and the characterization of the leucine zipper. He returned to Cambridge to lead a research group at the Gurdon Institute. The Kouzarides Research Group is focused on epigenetic modifications on Chromatin, RNA and DNA and their involvement in cancer. Tony is part of the Executive Board of the Cambridge Cancer Centre and on the Scientific Advisory Board of two Institutes on Spain (CRG in Barcelona and CABIMER in Seville). He is the founder and director of a cancer charity based in Spain called "Vencer el Cancer" (Conquer Cancer). Tony is a co- founder of Abcam plc, (a publicly trading research reagents company) a co-founder of two UK based cancer drug discovery companies, Chroma Therapeutics and STORM Therapeutics. Tony has been elected member of the European Molecular Biology organization, is a Fellow of the British Academy of Medical Sciences (FMedSci), Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) and is a Cancer Research UK Gibbs Fellow. He has been the recipient of several awards and prizes.

Dr. Misha Kapushesky
Prior to Genestack, Dr Kapushesky was a Team Leader in Functional Genomics at the European Bioinformatics Institute. He set up Genestack in 2012 and has worked closely with leading industry partners to build a bioinformatics infrastructure and tools that make it easy to find, combine, analyse and visualise data. Dr. Kapushesky has significant experience in dealing with big data in genomics and has participated in and led international consortia applying bioinformatics to medical research. Before joining the EBI in 2001, he worked at several high-tech start-ups in Boston, USA in the field of large-scale data search and processing. He was educated at Cambridge (Ph.D., Genetics), Oxford and Cornell Universities (B.S., Mathematics, magna cum laude).