Cancer Research UK hand-picks interdisciplinary teams to bring drugs from bench to clinic

In an effort to crack some of the biggest problems in cancer drug discovery, Cancer Research UK (CRUK) has launched a unique funding programme that promises to help bridge the gap between fundamental research and big pharma pipelines.

Along with its development and commercialisation arm Cancer Research Technology (CRT), the research charity is hand-picking ’crack teams’ of scientists from a range of disciplines, including medicinal chemistry, imaging and crystallography.

’It’s a new concept in funding and promoting collaboration with industry,’ explains Keith Blundy, chief executive of CRT, which is based in London, UK. 

"It’s a new concept in funding and promoting collaboration with industry" - Keith Blundy

Each project will form a limited company, managed by CRT and supported by ?500,000 from CRUK over two years. An industry partner will become a shareholder in the company by matching the funding, and then have the option to exploit intellectual property created by the research. 

This goes beyond the ’directed funding’ initiatives of government-funded research councils such as the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Blundy says. ’What’s different is that you have us, the technology transfer agency, which is selecting the scientists.’

Simon Youlton, senior business manager at CRT, points out that serendipitous collaborations between industry and researchers from diverse scientific backgrounds have been amongst the most successful at getting prospective cancer drugs from bench to clinic. He hopes that their ’brand new business model’ can deliberately create teams that are equally productive.

Bringing in industry partners at the earliest stage is crucial, adds Blundy as it allows them to help direct the programme and increases the chances of getting a drug into clinical trials.

Bridging the funding gap

The first project is led by Nicol Keith, a professor of molecular oncology at the University of Glasgow, UK, and tackles the emerging field of cell senescence - the mechanism that prevents the rampant proliferation of normal cells which is so characteristic of cancer cells. The goal is to understand how this natural brake on cancer works, and to find compounds that will promote similar senescence in cancer cells to slow or even halt tumour growth. Keith’s team includes cell imaging specialists, geneticists and structural biologists, but has yet to find an industry partner.

Nicholas Adams, director of business development at London-based biotechnology company Antisoma, agrees that the initiative could help to bridge the gap between industry and academia. It’s also especially attractive at a time when there is a shortage of venture capital or investor funding for research which is considered too risky, he adds. 

Five years ago, says Blundy, it would have been difficult to persuade pharmaceutical companies to invest in this sort of early stage research. But now, they are ’scrabbling around looking for things to fill their pipelines,’ he says. ’There’s a real wind of change.’

Future programmes will tackle the behaviour of cancer stem cells, and the way that histones - the proteins which help to bundle DNA into chromosomes - can play a part in controlling gene regulation. Youlton says that if the initial two-year projects show promise they are likely to be extended, and the number of academic collaborators expanded. He adds that AstraZeneca and Merck have already shown interest in the projects.

Mark Peplow