Chris Watkins, Director of Translational Research and Industry, MRC

Chris Watkins, Director of Translational Research and Industry, MRC

Last month the Medical Research Council (MRC) unveiled a new partnership with seven pharmaceutical companies to share deprioritised compounds for research in new disease areas. Here Chris Watkins, the MRC’s Director of Translational Research and Industry, explains how the collaboration came about and the role it plays in the MRC’s strategy for collaborating with industry.

One of the big challenges in medical research is understanding the biology of human disease. But there’s a problem with that. The best way of achieving this goal is to do experimental medicine studies in man, using molecules where you know the probable target and which you know are safe to give to study participants.

But these molecules are mainly developed by industry, once they’re pretty confident of the importance of the target. So how do you gain the evidence for the importance of the target? You need access to the molecules. That’s exactly what the current drug discovery landscape needs, and what the partnership we announced is aiming to do.

If we are to discover safer and more effective treatments, we need to bring together the strengths of academic researchers — with their study of the intricate mechanisms of diseases — with the experience of pharmaceutical companies in developing, testing and producing drugs.

In 2012 we announced a scheme to fund researchers to use 22 deprioritised compounds from AstraZeneca. Last month we built on this with a new initiative in which UK researchers will be granted access to a ‘virtual library’ of deprioritised pharmaceutical compounds offered up by AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Janssen Research & Development LLC, Lilly, Pfizer, Takeda and UCB. We hope more will come on board, both large multinational biopharmaceutical companies and smaller biotechs.

The aim is to use these molecules in experimental medicine studies to improve our understanding of a range of diseases, revealing new therapeutic opportunities with a view to developing more effective treatments, either through repurposing or new drug development. The compounds will have undergone some degree of industry development, but have all stalled at some point in early testing for a particular disease. However, they may still be useful for other diseases with shared biological pathways. And because the compounds have already undergone some preliminary development, such as safety testing, any new treatments arising from the research could reach patients much faster.

The initial MRC/AstraZeneca scheme is already demonstrating success. More than 100 ideas came out of the academic research base in the UK, many novel and unprecedented in nature. It’s a great example of “crowdsourcing innovation”. The first human trials to see whether a drug designed to treat gastro-oesophageal reflux disease can be ‘repurposed’ to treat chronic cough are already underway in Manchester.

The rights to intellectual property generated using the compounds will vary from project to project, but will be equitable and similar to those currently used in academically led research. This kind of open innovation model is about ensuring that everyone involved receives appropriate recognition for their contribution.

I’m really excited by the opportunities that will undoubtedly emerge from this initiative. We’ve planned this to be a “rolling” activity over a number of years, allowing the best ideas to come forward at the right time. It also means that more companies can participate as they see the benefits of such an approach, not only in terms of the molecules included in the virtual library, but also the greater understanding of disease mechanisms which may be of relevance to their own R&D programmes.

We anticipate this approach will become an integral part of the world-leading science supported by the MRC, enabling ground-breaking discovery and clinical science to be undertaken by the best researchers in the UK. This will only be achieved through the partnership we have with the biopharmaceutical industry, who clearly see the benefits and opportunities in working in this collaborative way.

These recent collaborations are just some of the many ways that we fund academic researchers to work with industry to accelerate the development of treatments. I’ve written before about why the MRC collaborates with industry. These recent collaborations are just some of the many ways that we bring academic researchers and companies together to accelerate the development of treatments.

I hope that we will continue to drive forward innovation for patient benefit using inventive ways to enable researchers from academia and industry to collaborate together, breaking down barriers and playing to their respective strengths.

Chris Watkins

The full list of compounds will be published later this year when researchers will have the opportunity to apply to use them under our normal response-mode funding.