Translating recent scientific discoveries in MND into the development of new and better treatments is a major challenge we face. To facilitate this process within the UK, we’ve recently played a role in match-making a key UK academic neuroscience department and a commercial organisation.
Pharmaceutical industry – the big, the small and the CROs
Discovery and development of a new medicine is always going to be expensive and never as rapid as everyone would like. Many major pharmaceutical companies cannot justify a large investment in a relatively rare disease like MND. They may not recover the costs even if a new drug is discovered. However, the landscape of pharmaceutical research has changed dramatically in recent years – the big multinationals are not the only players.
Smaller research companies, often termed ‘Biotechs’, have been responsible for many of the newer medicines discovered. They sometimes then collaborate with, or become a part of, a larger organisation to enable the development and commercialisation of the product. They can undertake research that larger companies, answerable to shareholders, consider too ‘risky’. The larger companies, facing decreased income as older medicines lose their patent protection, have been making cutbacks to their in-house research. However, they may be willing to take on a potential new medicine when evidence of its usefulness has already been generated.
Another group of companies, called ‘contract research organisations’ (CROs), will carry out part of the research process, typically under a contract from another company. This enables a large company to put extra people onto a project for a few months without having to employ them directly, which can be more flexible. Initially CROs undertook clinical research, testing new medicines on patients, but different CROs are now involved in all stages of the research and development process, often employing people with prior experience gained in the larger companies.
Drug discovery can also take place in University research departments. Industry has always taken advantage of the basic biological research done by academic researchers. Gradually, a few universities and institutes have become involved in other stages of drug discovery – facilitated recently by the willingness of scientists with key industry experience to move to academic roles. In the UK this has focussed on two areas: cancer (due largely to funding from Cancer Research UK) and ‘neglected diseases’ (usually diseases of the developing world, such as malaria).
Forging a Partnership
The drug discovery CROs are now becoming interested in partnering with academic researchers, to facilitate their drug discovery. My personal industrial experience means that I know people in some of these CROs, and they know of my move to the MND Association. One particular company, Peakdale Molecular became aware of the research underway at the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN), and were particularly keen to know more as they are based relatively close. We encouraged some of Peakdale’s scientists to join us at the recent one-day conference in Liverpool, where they heard Dr Ramesh from SITraN give a presentation about his Association-funded project to test potential drug compounds in his zebrafish model of MND. The following week I travelled north again – South Yorkshire this time – to attend the first meeting between representatives of Peakdale and some of the scientists at SITraN.
We heard about several projects, mostly MND-related, but also one on Parkinson’s disease, and we were shown around the SITraN labs. The Peakdale managers described the ways they would be able to help an academic team, for example, to select and source compounds for testing in the various biological assays at SITraN. They were impressed with the results shown for the various projects, and could readily see how the experience and expertise of their staff might help the academic projects. Finally – and key news for the academics – Peakdale announced they would like to start by providing some help without charge, although purchase of compounds from commercial suppliers will inevitably incur costs.
It’s only a few weeks since that first meeting in March 2012, but already a Confidentiality Disclosure Agreement has been put in place to allow the start of collaborative working between Peakdale and SITraN scientists. Such an agreement is important if any discoveries are later considered to require protection by patent filings.
We really hope they do, as that will be one small step forward in the search for a new treatment for MND.
Very recent update: SITraN scientists have placed an order for a test compound to be synthesised by Peakdale for their MND studies and a second meeting has taken place between SITraN scientists and the Peakdale Chemists to further forge the working partnership on a number of projects.