The first spinout companies have been launched based on research by Francis Crick Institute scientists. Both Achilles Therapeutics and Gamma Delta Therapeutics have received investment that will see them develop new cancer therapies that aim to prime the body's own immune system to attack tumours.
These spinouts are early tangible outcomes for the focus the Crick has placed from the start on 'translation' as a key strategic goal.
Paul Nurse, director of the Francis Crick Institute, says: "We do fundamental discovery science at the Crick, researching the biology underlying human diseases. But we are very open to translating those discoveries and new understanding into new treatments for patients. That's an important part of our strategy and an important aim for UK science generally. We need to make the most of our outstanding science research and turn it into new health and wealth benefits for society."
Translation describes the way in which discoveries in the lab become developed into safe and effective new therapies for patients. The process also works in the other direction too, with clinical and patient insight informing basic science in the laboratory - a truly two-way process.
The Crick has an approach to translation based on three core principles: open science; accelerating the development of that science into capable hands where advanced testing can occur; and keeping patients at the centre.
David Roblin is the Chief Operating Officer at the Francis Crick Institute: "The UK is acknowledged to be world-leading in its bioscience research but really hasn't punched its weight in translating that into new treatments for patients, new companies, new investment and returns."
David is giving shape to the Crick's innovation strategy as Director of Scientific Translation, having had extensive experience in running research programmes for some of the largest pharmaceutical firms. He says: "Translation is one of our five strategic aims. We are pursuing an approach to translation that we think offers something new, offers the best chance of success in providing benefits to patients sooner and can play a role in demonstrating the way to boost innovation arising out of UK science."
Spinout investment takes research closer to the clinic
If a biological discovery in the lab is to be developed into a potential new treatment or diagnostic test, it'll need to be optimised and validated before it gets near a patient and clinical trials. That needs significant investment, and one of many ways to achieve that is by forming a new company to develop the technology. In just the past few weeks, two research advances from the Crick and research partners have been spun out as new companies.
"We are pursuing an approach to translation that we think offers something new."
Achilles Therapeutics is a new company formed by Syncona LLP and Cancer Research Technology with backing of £13.2 million. It brings together research by scientists at the Francis Crick Institute and UCL (University College London) which was funded by Cancer Research UK and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). Charlie Swanton and colleagues discovered unique markers that are present on the surface of all cancer cells in an individual patient's tumour, but not on healthy cells. These markers, or truncal tumour neo-antigens, can act as flags to the immune system. Achilles Therapeutics will design lung cancer therapies that target these markers with the aim of destroying tumours without harming healthy tissues.
"Our research could provide a truly personalised approach to lung cancer therapy by targeting cell surface markers that are specific to each patient and present on all cancer cells rather than just a subset of cells," Charlie explains. "We're delighted to be able to bring this exciting science closer to the clinic. We hope to create a new and kinder treatment for this hard-to-treat disease that results in around 36,000 patient deaths each year in the UK."
GammaDelta Therapeutics, co-founded by Adrian Hayday and Oliver Nussbaumer at King's College London and the Francis Crick Institute, seeks to advance a novel approach to immunotherapy based on research which was funded in part by Cancer Research UK and by the NIHR. The new company aims to exploit the unique activities of gamma delta (??) T cells that are found in the body's tissues where cancers and inflammatory diseases take hold. It has received seed funding from the life sciences investment group Abingworth, as well as support from Cancer Research Technology (CRT), King's College London and the Francis Crick Institute.
"I am extremely excited about the confidence placed in our research and in our team," says Adrian. While he notes that there's never a guarantee of success, he says he is very motivated by "the accelerated potential to realise some ambitious clinical goals".
The pharmaceutical industry has been increasingly collaborating with academia in recent years, in order to achieve a better understanding of the underlying biology of disease. Various methods and models have been used in forming these research partnerships.
The Crick's strategy is to collaborate openly in the early, pre-competitive stages of research, when pharma and academia can bring their different but complementary approaches and expertise to the understanding of biological systems underlying disease.
The idea is that only by working closely together we will know more about biological processes that can be targeted with treatment. This is best done and has most chance of success if the skills, talents and capabilities from both sectors are applied together in an open way, sharing knowledge.
"We need better treatments for so many pressing health conditions - cancer, neurodegenerative disease and dementia, autoimmune conditions and infectious disease. It is the basic understanding of the science causing these diseases that is required in order to improve the success rate and speed of developing new treatments," David says.
"At this early stage, it's first and foremost about making discoveries about the basic biology rather than filing patents, which usually come somewhat later. It may be that new treatments could be developed from this work but this is somewhat downstream. That much later stage of research is where pharma and biotech companies come into their own, with their expertise in optimising compounds and taking them through clinical studies. Then we all benefit: the Crick will benefit from its involvement, the drug firm will benefit and in the future society will have better treatments available to it."
A first such partnership in open science is seeing Crick researchers work alongside scientists from GSK in the lab. Fourteen joint projects are under way in areas from HIV and malaria to cancer, with a further two projects being developed. Discussions with other pharma companies are being held to create further partnerships.
The core funding for the Francis Crick Institute from its founder partners means it is more able to see innovation develop further along the path towards patients. By ensuring that the biology of disease is better understood, this should increase the chances of success.
David says there is a perception that the current technology transfer approach in other institutions can lead to a pressure to do deals early on, perhaps too early on when technologies are as-yet unproven.
Instead of having to enter these long and time-consuming negotiations, the Crick's dedicated funding and long-term view means scientists can get on with experiments that provide confidence in a concept instead. Discoveries can be accelerated further towards clinical studies, learning from each round of research, without feeling that investment deals need to be done to suit short-term needs and incentives. "Deals can come later," says the Head of Translation, Veronique Birault, with any resultant successes ploughed back into the Crick's science endeavours.
The Crick has established a programme to identify a pipeline of research projects ripe for translation with seed funding available to carry out pilot investigations, explains Veronique. "The Medical Research Council provided the Crick with £2.3 million to establish translation activities at the Crick, with £1 million of this dedicated to such projects," she explains.
"The Crick is forming new companies, there is funding to support innovative new ideas, we have novel open partnerships with industry and we're adding clinical expertise to put the patient front and centre."
Veronique Birault, Head of Translation
Research group leaders work with the translation team and submit proposals which are reviewed by a translational advisory group. Some are selected to go forward, others with potential continue to be monitored or developed. Nine projects are currently under way with a further four projects in cancer, malaria and tuberculosis being developed.
For all this talk of innovation, of biological discoveries, identifying drug targets and developing new technologies, there is still one aim: to improve outcomes and quality of life for patients.
"We believe clinical insight - from doctors and patients - is key for progress," David says.
"We want to work more in human cells and tissues, as there is evidence that higher probability of getting to later stage clinical trials goes hand in hand with studies involving human biological samples."
There is a clear move to increase the clinical expertise available at the Crick. Many of the partnerships with UCL, Imperial and King's in London, as well as other universities beyond, involve working with clinicians. Peter Ratcliffe, as Clinical Research Director, is overseeing the support for clinical academic training provided by the Crick. Finally there is an aim to recruit more research group leaders with a clinical background.
A culture of success
"We are making great progress," says Veronique. "The Crick is forming new companies, there is funding to support innovative new ideas, we have novel open partnerships with industry and we're adding clinical expertise to put the patient front and centre. But sometimes it is also about getting the culture of an institution right and with lots of examples of success for others to follow this will come.
To that end, a team has been appointed to put the support in place for all these translation efforts. A Translation Advisory Group has been formed with a number of external experts and entrepreneurs in residence help spark interest and run sessions for PhD students, postdocs and other interested scientists.
"Will it all work?" David asks. "What I know is, we can provide is an excellent basis for innovation: world-leading science, great research partnerships and an attractive offer to investors. There is no shortage of ideas and projects here. There has been significant investment in two new companies in the exciting area of cancer therapeutics. But time will tell. We will be judged in the end on the breakthroughs in science we achieve and through delivering new therapies with real benefit for patients. After all, that is why we do all of this."