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Cancer Research Horizons: Driving Innovation and Strengthening Academia–Industry Collaboration

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While the scientific community continues to work tirelessly to expand the diagnostic and treatment options available to cancer patients, both basic and clinical research are challenged by the heterogeneity and complexity of the disease. Too often there is a translational gap that prevents the evolution of novel ideas into vital clinical options. 

In April 2022, Cancer Research UK unveiled Cancer Research Horizons, its new approach to driving innovation in the field. It aims to encourage, facilitate and strengthen collaboration between academia and industry to ultimately fast-track scientific breakthroughs for patient benefit.

Technology Networks had the opportunity to speak with two members of Cancer Research Horizon’s executive leadership team – Tony Hickson, chief business officer and Hamish Ryder, chief executive officer of Therapeutic Innovation – to learn more about the launch of the new organization and some of the cutting-edge experimental capabilities that will be used to study challenging targets and interrogate tumor biology more thoroughly.

Laura Lansdowne (LL): Can you touch on the importance of academia‒industry‒investor collaboration and how this can help to tackle the translational gap and drive innovation in the development of new treatments for patients?

Tony Hickson (TH): Many of the most novel ideas arise from academic discovery research, as researchers are given more license to explore boundaries and pursue challenges compared to industrial research. Unsurprisingly, healthcare companies are increasingly looking to partner with academia or with academic spin-out companies to access this ingenuity to supplement their own research and development efforts. Published data suggest that in the period 2001–2019, academic inventors contributed to 37% of cancer medicines. Additionally, Ernst & Young estimates that pharma companies are now sourcing 63% of their R&D innovation externally.

The critical element is partnership – matching academic discovery research, with funding and with access to industry-grade resources (so the right things are done i.e., the things that industry and investors expect to see) and expertise, all of which maximize the chance of new ideas reaching the market. Academic ideas won’t leave the lab (or will only do so inefficiently) without access to these. 

LL: A recent press release, highlighting the launch of Cancer Research Horizons, notes that “one aspect Horizons will focus on is the pursuit of tougher, relatively unexplored and more profound ideas that hold promise for true innovation”. Could you elaborate on this point?

TH: Through Cancer Research Horizons and our new £30m seed fund, we will be able to invest earlier and in more novel science than traditional Venture capital investors, enabling us to move faster on some of the most novel approaches (e.g., cancers of unmet need like brain cancer/glioblastoma, etc.), or niche conditions (e.g., rare/pediatric cancers) which may not be picked up – or require a lot more “de-risking” before they are. We are also bringing both seed (seed fund) or project (Tx catalyst) funding and (if required) drug discovery capabilities to bear – i.e., we are more than just a “virtual biotech” and more akin to a real one (but without the shareholder pressure to focus on larger indications or less risky targets). An example is our work with Artios Pharma on polymerase theta (Polθ) – a new target class.

LL: In what ways can researchers and industry professionals partner with Cancer Research Horizons?

TH: Cancer Research Horizons aims to provide an innovation portal that acts as the gateway to “all things innovation-related” at CRUK.

Researchers can partner with Cancer Research Horizons to get entrepreneurial training, business plan advice, customer discovery programs, accelerators, incubator space, etc.

As well as help with:

  • Protecting their new ideas with Intellectual property (IP)
  • Forming a new venture and finding funding for it
  • Collaborating with industry or with licensing out IP
  • Commercializing their research tools/accessing other tools via cancertools.org

Industry and investors can partner with Cancer Research Horizons to access:

  • The wealth of UK cancer researchers via Cancer Research Horizons – minimizing contractual complexity as we have “background” agreements already set up with most UK institutes regarding IP and commercialization
  • IP for licensing in (e.g., patents, code, copyright, data, design rights etc.)
  • Drug discovery expertise via Cancer Research Horizons Therapeutic Innovation and its various platforms and partners (see below)
  • Drug development expertise via our Centre for Drug Development (formulation, preclinical development and first-in-man studies)
  • New start-ups being formed and seed-funded

LL: Can you tell us more about the Therapeutic Innovation “pillar” of Cancer Research Horizons? 

Hamish Ryder (HR): In a nutshell, we’ve brought together all of CRUK’s funded drug discovery, including drug discovery grant funding, into a single organization, with a single budget, portfolio and leadership team. This represents a radical shift from the previous model of independently funded drug discovery units.

The leadership team is highly experienced both in the commercial drug discovery sector (90 person-years) and non-commercial (60 years) – and will be accountable to a Therapeutic Innovation Board that we are in the process of appointing. We’ll also have strategic input from a Science Advisory Board that will be chaired by Neil Thompson (currently CSO at Healx).

The new organization gives us critical mass, bringing together 200+ drug discovery scientists.

Location-wise we’re embedded across six UK sites in biotech clusters and leading academic institutions, reflecting the two worlds we seek to bring together:

  • Cambridge (three sites) is the center of gravity. It includes our largest drug discovery lab at the Babraham Research Campus and joint initiatives with AstraZeneca (AZ) at Granta Park in antibody therapeutics and at the Milner Institute (Cambridge Biomedical Campus) in functional genomics
  • Francis Crick Institute – drug discovery lab
  • Beatson Institute – drug discovery lab
  • Newcastle University – academic drug discovery lab bringing an additional dimension, still focused on portfolio delivery, but also pioneering new drug discovery methods within their areas of expertise

We begin from a position of strength. Firstly, our access to CRUK-funded academic science, which has been and will continue to be a key differentiator, and secondly, we will build on a track record of partnerships and alliances. We have brought together academic and commercial expertise across several areas of cancer biology – creating deep insight within our areas of focus. Key partners include Astex Pharmaceuticals, BMS, Ono Pharmaceutical, Merck KGaA and LifeArc. We have also been instrumental in the new company formation of Artios and iOnctura.

LL: How do you plan to take your previous experience working in biopharma/pharma/CRUK’s Therapeutic Discovery Labs and apply it to your new role, is there anything in particular that you plan to implement as CEO of Therapeutic Innovation at Cancer Research Horizons? 

HR: My previous experience encompasses a range of disease areas and risk propositions – from directing drug discovery programs focused on the delivery of incremental innovation (drugs based on clinically proven concepts), to identifying and looking to explore drug novel targets for which there was no clinical precedent.

Cancer Research Horizons’ Therapeutic Innovation has been created to increase our impact on patient outcomes – both through a step-change in the number of potential new therapies we discover and bring to the clinic, and also those potential therapies representing highly novel or highly differentiated approaches that hold the promise of real breakthroughs in cancer patient outcomes. At a fundamental level this will be driven by attainment of critical mass (ability to move projects fast, invest in differentiating capabilities), providing a single focus for the commercial partnerships team drug discovery interface, for network engagement and for partnering, and a fully aligned portfolio from response-mode grants for early ideas onwards.

Our experience of working in academia/industry partnership in recent years, leveraging critical intellectual and drug discovery mass is something we will carry forward and enhance. The resultant team science ethic brings deep biology insight that fosters high-quality progression plans and decision making that makes it easier to embrace novelty and projects with the potential to make a real difference to patients. Our ambition is to double the combined output of the constituent parts of the new organization – measured as a surrogate of patient benefit – by starting clinical trials.

Examples of changes we are implementing, or plan to implement:

  • The response mode funding scheme is now administered from within the drug discovery organization – making professional drug discovery support available to all successful applications and allowing us to align and build our portfolio more strategically from the earliest stages.
  • We are looking to further diversify our models of collaboration – examples include a broad strategic agreement with the Oncode Institute in the Netherlands, significantly increasing our academic reach, and a joint initiative with Deep Science Ventures to co-create and incubate new spinouts within our laboratories.

LL: What are some of the cutting-edge experimental capabilities that will be used to address challenging targets and interrogate tumor dependencies?  

HR: We'll continue to develop technology in our CRISPR screening initiative with AZ – including the design of more efficient guide libraries, increasingly sophisticated screening capabilities, readouts and data analysis. To identify novel targets, evaluate prototype drugs for resistance mechanisms, and potential synthetic lethal dependencies.

We'll work more closely with the network to access cutting-edge disease modeling capabilities (e.g., organoid technology, tumor explants and in vivo models).

Newly attained critical mass will allow us to focus on consolidating, and further building key drug discovery platforms in-house or through partnering. Examples include our established immunology team and all capabilities relevant for identifying high quality hit matter against less precedented target types (e.g., screening approaches, structural and biophysical sciences and mechanistic biology).

Tony Hickson and Hamish Ryder were speaking with Laura Elizabeth Lansdowne, Managing Editor for Technology Networks.