Reconnecting at ELRIG Drug Discovery 2021
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The previous eighteen months, while inexplicably challenging in many ways, have marked some of the greatest achievements in the history of scientific R&D. Sadly, celebration of such triumphs by the scientific community was forced to take place behind closed doors and in isolation.
Connection, collaboration and discussion are integral for scientific progress. Virtual events have been a great platform for scientists in industry and academia to continue conversations and forge new collaborations. However, some members of the scientific community are ready for the opportunity to network face-to-face again.
That's why, almost eighteen months after the global pandemic was declared, Technology Networks is delighted to be reporting – in person – from The European Laboratory Research & Innovation Group (ELRIG)'s Drug Discovery 2021 meeting.
What is ELRIG?ELRIG is a European not-for-profit organization that comprises over 12,000 life science professionals. It aims to provide scientific content to the life science community by developing scientific programs that explore cutting-edge areas of research, which are set to transform the drug discovery field.
Throughout the year, ELRIG organizes a number of scientific conferences and networking meetings, “to bring [the drug discovery] community together, to learn, share, connect, innovate and collaborate. And we do that on an open-access basis,” said ELRIG’S Chair Melanie Leveridge, head of screening, profiling and mechanistic biology for the UK at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).
After the storm: The future of ELRIG
Leveridge kicked off the plenary session by providing context on the organization’s decision to reunite its community in the flesh: “ELRIG is here to deliver UK-leading events showcasing cutting-edge science and technology, that are freely accessible to all.” She emphasized that ELRIG's top priority from the offset of planning the in-person meeting was the safety of its attendees, speakers and exhibitors. Its efforts in this space are clear to see from a quick glance around the venue. A scattering of colors dominates the spacious exhibition hall; attendees each wearing a lanyard of choice that is either red, yellow or green, providing a visual indication of how comfortable they are with interacting at the event. A COVID pass, or proof of vaccination, was also required upon entry.
The tagline for this year's meeting is: After the Storm: Re-Connect, Re-Invent, Re-Imagine. Leveridge said that almost 1500 individuals are expected to attend over the course of the two days. Considering the anticipated number of registrants for 2020 was ~1200, it is clear that the life science community is eager for reconnection.
Leveridge echoed this in her opening address, encouraging attendees to “take the opportunity to re-connect with colleagues and make new connections, to go and spend time looking at science and technology that will re-invent the way we do drug discovery and re-imagine what we can do as a community.”
ELRIG's strategic pillars
Uniting the life science community on an open-access basis is the core philosophy of ELRIG, Leveridge explained. In order to continue to deliver on this mission in a post-pandemic world, the organization has developed a strategy for the coming years, which is categorized into four different pillars:
- A focus on delivering UK-leading events for the life sciences community
- To promote inclusivity, engagement and collaboration within the diverse ELRIG community
- Expand and enhance its digital presence to engage a broader network of delegates
“The second of our strategic pillars is to promote inclusivity, engagement and collaboration in our diverse community […] this is something we have been very focused on over the last year, and we feel very strongly about,” said Leveridge.
She explained that a key aspect of increasing inclusivity – and expanding the breadth of ELRIG’s content to as many people as possible – is partnerships. These include Alzheimer’s Research UK, the Society of Lab Automation and Screening (SLAS) and the British Pharmacological Society – all of which contributed to the 2021 program.
Equality, diversity and inclusivity
Leveridge invited Clare Viney, chief executive officer at the Careers Research and Advisory Centre (CRAC) to further discuss the core pillar of equality, diversity and inclusivity. Viney emphasized that the ELRIG committee is not afraid to have difficult conversations surrounding just how equal and diverse the community is. “Over the last year we have been going on a journey. Equality, diversity and inclusion is something that ELRIG has at its heart. We wanted to understand [what] the aims could be for us as an organization,” explained Viney.
She continued, “We started by looking at the data; we are scientists, we are researchers, we are in a data-informed industry and business – we need to understand where we are currently.” According to Viney, this allows ELRIG to quantify and measure its equality and diversity journey so far, where it is heading and future progress.
“Equality and diversity is really about getting people in the room – the online room as well as the physical room – getting them to come to ELRIG events and to understand the breadth of opportunities. We want everyone to have an inclusive experience,” noted Viney.
She shared the following statistics relating to this year's meeting:
- 33/46 speakers are male (72%)
- 11/46 are non-white (24%)
Viney said that, going forward, ELRIG intends to look more closely at the tracks that make up the meeting. This means taking exclusivity, gender, disability and age of speakers into consideration. “We want to strive for [that] cultural change, not just for ELRIG as an organization but for the community that we work with,” said Viney.
And the "Lifetime Achievement Award" goes to…
At this year's meeting, ELRIG presented the first winner of its inaugural "Lifetime Achievement Award" to Steve Rees, the vice president of discovery biology, research and development at AstraZeneca, and previous chair of ELRIG.
“It really has been a privilege to work with so many hugely talented people across the ELRIG organization, most of whom – including Melanie [Leveridge] – are very much personal friends of mine, as well as colleagues," Rees said. His acceptance of the award included an inspiring presentation titled: "A Lifetime in Drug Discovery".
Reflecting on his 30 years in industry, the progress made during this time period and setting the tone for the next two days, Rees said: "What has enthused me throughout that time is really the excitement of what we can do in science – what science can do [and] what we can do, as drug discovery scientists, to transform human health through the delivery of new medicines to patients.”
Rees highlighted the impressive speed at which new, varied modalities can be developed: “From small molecules, PROTACs, antibodies, antibody–drug conjugates, cell therapies, gene therapies […] to a range of RNA medicines.”
"Who would have imagined, when we met in Liverpool two years ago [for Drug Discovery 2019], that two years later, billions of people would have been treated with a vaccine that contained mRNA as a therapeutic modality. I think the answer to that is none of us.”