Cancer Research Horizon’s Innovation Summit 2023 took place on 21 November 2023 at the Royal Society of Medicine, and included talks from researchers translating their research, as well as networking with members of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. DDW’s Megan Thomas spoke to a range of attendees.
Trends for cancer research
Dr Alessia Errico, is a technology transfer professional, specialised in the field of oncology, and the Associate Director for Search & Evaluation at Cancer Research Horizons. When asked what key trends we can expect from cancer research at large, but also Cancer Research Horizons in 2024, she said she thinks we’re yet to see the full impact of precision medicine, in terms of implementation. More significantly, she says, with the boost from what we have learned from Covid, cancer vaccines will become a reality. She is not sure if this will be in 2024, although Moderna has had some fantastic results. BioNTech is also working in this space. She noted that while companies like Moderna and BioNTech are focused on mRNA platforms, those that used the more classical viral platform are now thinking about how to enter the space. She believes we might start to see a combination of vaccines with other immunotherapies or classical therapies out there, and that this will become more and more prevalent because of the nature of cancer.
Jonathan Kwok, CEO & Co-founder of Infinitopes Precision Immunomics, also referenced Moderna and BioNTech going on the record to say they will have approved cancer vaccines by 2030, as well as how recruitment has started for the NHS’s UK Cancer Vaccine Launch Pad, a platform that will speed up access to cancer vaccine clinical trials for people who have been diagnosed with cancer. As for Infinitopes, the company’s trials will begin in 2024. He said: “Between now and 2030, we’re going to see a range of vaccines using various technologies. It’s an exciting time, to learn which will be the best solutions for patients.”
Technologies to enable cancer research
Dr Errico noted the huge impact of genome sequencing, genomic tools, and RNA sequencing on cancer research. She said: “I think that type of technology will continue to evolve and will become cheaper and cheaper. I think that will make a great impact because the personalisation comes down to being able to do those type of tests in a sustainable and affordable manner, not just for R&D. That is key.”
In addition, Dr Errico thinks we will need to try to better understand the validation of biomarkers. Though acknowledging the difficulty when it comes to biomarker validation, she thinks that with personalised medicine, data and AI, this will be an important area as we go forward. Elaborating on the topic of AI, Dr Errico says her concerns lie in whether or not its pros and cons are being properly analysed, not just from a scientific perspective but also from a legal perspective.
Overcoming challenges in cancer research
When asked to pinpoint one of the biggest challenges to overcome in cancer research, Dr Errico commented that the answer is likely different depending on whether she is answering from a patient perspective or a science and technology perspective. However, she believes perhaps the biggest issue with treatment development is simply: it takes too long. She said: “The speed is not sustainable. We went from several years ago saying that one in four people will get cancer, now we say one in two, to the point that I don’t think anybody on this planet can say they have not being touched by cancer in some way, shape, or form.”
While Dr Errico knows plenty of people will list challenges such as money and regulation, but ultimately she thinks time underlies all of these challenges. Covid, she says, proved to us what could be done in a very short period of time, particularly in the case of the mRNA vaccine. Following from this, she said: “You have to wonder why cancer is not a big enough problem to do this as well.”
Ultimately, Dr Errico thinks that fighting cancer requires everyone to work together, and that events such as the Innovation Summit allow the community to keep motivated, learn where others have tried, succeeded or failed, and keep moving forward regardless.
Transitioning from lab to application
Dr Mina Bekheet founded Panacea Innovation during his time at University of Oxford, with the aim to bridge the gap between scientific research and scientific innovation. As CEO & Managing Partner at Panacea Innovation, he works with the world’s best minds to translate science into breakthrough products and high-impact companies. When asked what he thinks makes up a ‘starter pack’ for researchers looking to move from the lab to industry, he said: “You need kind of a consider three different elements, in my mind. One is the team. The other is the actual asset – the technology side. The third is the market.”
Elaborating, Dr Bekheet notes that the quality of the team came up across various talks throughout the Innovation Summit, and stipulates that what really matters is identifying where the team’s strength lies, where the skill set is, whether there are gaps within the team, and trying to build a cohesive team. That, he says, is the very first selling point, and the first thing to do before moving out of a lab. Moreover, this first step involves ensuring there are solid co-founders in place.
Next comes the technology itself. Dr Bekheet said: “You need to do as much experimental work as possible to de-risk the technology asset in order to validate its scientific existence. Your experiments should be driven by the commercial trajectory, not by the academic publishing trajectory. I think this is very important.” He continued by explaining that for so many of the academics that they come across, their main focus is that they have set of data which could be a perfect fit for one of the top tier journals, but data is not sufficient to the commercial substance.
Lastly, he speaks about the market, which he thinks is probably the most important part of transitioning from the lab to application. Ultimately, he says, it doesn’t really matter how good the research is if it’s only going to affect a couple of people. He said: “You need to make sure that whatever you’re developing, once it’s out there in the market, the value of that market is worth at least a billion pounds. Firstly, this is because you need to be protected against any potential condition. Secondly, this is how you create significant enterprise value.”
Dr Bekheet also added a nugget of advice for entrepreneurs, many of whom he says the biggest fear is whether it is the ‘right time’. To this, he says: “The reality is, there will never be a right time. Rather do it now. It will always look different further down the line.”
The start-up landscape: Strengths and weaknesses
In answer to what the start-up landscape currently looks like, Dr Bekheet started by acknowledging how significantly different it is from what it looked like just five years ago. He says that now, what is really missing is smart capital. He refers to recent studies that have been conducted which show that nine out of 10 scientific players in Europe got their money by going to the US. He explained: “This largely due to the fact that we don’t have as much early stage capital, if you look at the proportion of seed stage capital out of the total pot of capital available across all different investment stages in the UK, and compared to elsewhere, like in the US or China, the amount of capital available is significantly smaller.”
Along with lack of capital, Dr Bekheet listsed lack of investment as an area that is lacking. He noted that historically, you either had therapeutics or non-therapeutics companies. Over the past five years, Dr Bekheet says a new asset class has emerged, which mandates new investments which do not currently exist. He said: “I think a new generation of investors and VCs that would help looking at assets and opportunities using that lens is super important.”
Despite this, Dr Bekheet says that innovation at its genesis is significantly better in the UK than anywhere else, and that the quality of the science in the UK is significantly different to peers in the US, for example.
Independent university spinout landscape
During the Innovation Summit, the UK government’s independent review of the UK spinout landscape was revealed, and aims to identify best practice for UK universities to form spinouts and license intellectual property. Tony Hickson, Chief Business Officer of Cancer Research Horizons, was on hand to comment on the announcement. He said: “We welcome the announcement today. I think it’s very helpful that a series of recommendations has been published that everyone can get behind. The recommendations are not outlandish, they’re not unexpected. What we were most concerned about was that the government would intend to impose a ‘one size fits all’, which doesn’t reflect the realities. Every negotiation is different, every company is at a different stage, every amount of technology going in, and university input is different, and you have to have some flexibility to adjust.
“So, we’re very pleased that they’ve listened to the universities, in some ways universities got ahead of it as well, by producing the USIT Guide, which I think was a very helpful addition to the community. From what we can see, all of the recommendations are very sensible. I think what we’re hoping now is we can put this behind us, because there have been endless spinout equity reviews, always going back to the same issues as if this is what was holding everything back. We don’t believe that is the root cause of what’s holding everything back. What’s holding us back now is access to capital: early-stage seed capital, and scale up capital. There are a whole host of other issues, such as access to talent and business investment in R&D, where we believe the time should be focused and hopefully now we can put the whole spinout equity issue behind us.”
Precision immunomics medicines
Infinitope’s Kwok reflects on the long standing pattern in oncology drug development where new therapies – typically chemotherapies – are offered to patients who have exhausted all of our previous treatment options. He said: “What we should do instead, is find those patients who are most likely to respond to something new, and offer it to them and their families, rather than raising hopes unfairly.” This, he says, is what the team at Infinitopes is doing, using much better precision targeting, as well as using clever biochemistry, computational biology and machine learning.
Looking forward, he said: “If we can solve these problems of targeting, delivery and selecting the optimal patients for trials, we’ll enjoy a greater chance of success. That’s exactly what we’ve done. A really exciting moment for cancer patient care.”