Last month, Modern Biosciences (MBS) announced details of its collaboration with Janssen Biotech, facilitated by the J&J Innovation Centre in London. Here, Sam Williams, CEO of Modern Biosciences, details the vital role played by the Biomedical Catalyst in the journey leading up to the collaboration.

On the 27th November, Modern Biosciences (MBS) announced a £176 million option and licensing deal with Janssen Biotech, a division of Johnson and Johnson, relating to its novel rheumatoid arthritis (RA) drugs. This was a watershed moment for MBS in terms of securing the funding required to take our lead programme into the clinic as well as finding the right collaborator to take it to market, neither of which would have been possible without the Biomedical Catalyst (BMC).

The history of MBS traces the typical biotech rollercoaster ride, possibly with more acute ups and downs, but that story is for another day. Suffice to say, in recent years our focus had become a series of compounds with an unknown molecular mechanism but intriguing in vivo behaviour which suggested they had the potential to do something unique in the treatment of RA – that is, not only reduce inflammation, but also exert a directly protective effect on bone.

The compounds were originally licensed from the University of Aberdeen in 2007, very soon after MBS was founded. In those naïve start-up days, we assumed we’d have optimised candidates in a year, be in the clinic in two and have sold the programme to pharma in three. However, as anyone who’s ever run a ‘black-box’ programme knows, life’s not so easy, particularly when you’re a virtual organisation with one full-time employee working from a desk in London. Although we were lucky enough to have support from IP Group, we often questioned what on earth we were doing. “Too early, too risky, no target” is what the VCs and pharmas kept telling us.

That started to change in 2012 when we won our first BMC award – a £1.6 million grant to support the programme to IND. The ironic thing is, I didn’t think we had a chance of winning – not only did we have an unusual programme, but the application process itself seemed laborious and the questions repetitive and counter-intuitive. Lisa Patel, now CSO of MBS, saw things differently and convinced us to chance our arm. So we did. And we were, quite frankly, amazed when we discovered we’d won three months later – for the first time in about 4 years, someone else believed in what we were doing.

With the BMC award providing our first external validation, IP Group could ramp up its support with greater conviction. This meant we were able to expand our team of two consultants to twenty-five, covering immunological pathology, tox, PK, formulation, process chemistry and so on, as well as pay for experiments that helped to finally tease apart the mechanism of action.

With a clinical candidate soon in place, we started to engage with potential licensees and stumbled upon the team at the J&J Innovation Centre in London. The programme was still a difficult sell to most big pharmas – after all, we didn’t know the precise molecular target – but in the J&J team we found a group of people who were driven by the science rather than a BD box-ticking process. The rest, as they say, is history.

Other than financing, going through the BMC process brought several unexpected benefits, not least that it sharpened our view of what we were doing and why. What really was the unique positioning of our product? Did we honestly think we’d be able to commercialise after filing an IND? It’s one thing talking about these matters, but quite another thing committing them to paper.

And the support continues: the week before we signed the Janssen deal, we announced the award of our second BMC grant for the RA programme, this one for £2.4 million. This will make a vital contribution to the cost of the Phase 1 programme, which is still very much in our hands.

In summary, the BMC has played a critical role in what has been a great result for MBS, its shareholders and the University of Aberdeen. However, there is still a long way to go and the true measure of success will be the launch of a drug that has a positive impact on patient outcomes. If this happens, then it can safely be said that it might not have done so without the BMC.

Round 8 of the BioMedical Catalyst is currently open for applications. Registration for early stage awards will close on 21 January 2015 and the deadline for submissions is 28 January 2015. Registration for feasibility studies will close on 18 March 2015 and the deadline for submissions is 21 March 2015. Further information is available from Innovate UK.