Global drug discovery hotspots: Glasgow, UK

Glasgow skyline

With leading academic institutions and significant recent investment, Glasgow is shaping up to be an important centre for drug discovery and development in the UK. DDW’s Diana Spencer explores the city’s unique ecosystem.

In early December 2023, the University of Glasgow announced plans to construct a new Health Innovation Hub in Govan in Glasgow. The new centre represents a flagship investment within the University’s Glasgow Riverside Innovation District (GRID) and will be home to commercial businesses as well as the University of Glasgow-led Living Laboratory for Precision Medicine.

A key aspect of the programme will be to enhance collaboration and partnerships between academia, industry, clinicians and the community to better tackle healthcare challenges for the benefit of patients and the NHS.

The new hub will become a part of the already thriving life sciences sector in the Glasgow area, most of which is centred around the university, the Cancer Research UK Scotland Institute and the BioCity cluster, making Glasgow and its surrounds one of the most important regions for drug discovery and development in the UK.

John Taylor, Group Leader (Medicinal Chemistry), Cancer Research Horizons, explains what he thinks makes the city so attractive for life sciences: “The proximity to a number of world-class academic institutes, both in Glasgow and the surrounding regions, is hugely important to the life sciences industry here. Not only does this facilitate collaboration with a diverse collection of talented researchers, but it also gives us access to the ready-made pool of talent being trained at our universities. In addition, Glasgow is an attractive location to the brightest and best scientists from all over the world. The research staff at the Cancer Research UK Scotland Institute and the Cancer Research Horizons laboratory capture this diversity, with over 40 different nationalities represented by the staff and students here in our institute.”

A centre of excellence for cancer research

The announcement of the new Health Innovation Hub follows other examples of significant investment in Glasgow life sciences. In September 2023 Cancer Research UK announced its largest ever investment in Scotland of up to £123m, as part of a seven-year commitment to the Cancer Research UK Scotland Institute (formerly known as the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute).

Michelle Mitchell, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK, discusses the investment: “With a long heritage of success in finding new ways to tackle cancer in Scotland, the Institute is very much a national centre of excellence and will be key to us achieving our ultimate goal of beating cancer sooner. Its researchers represent some of the best scientists from around the world who have come together to work towards better outcomes for patients today and in the future.”

As well as the Cancer Research UK Scotland Institute, Cancer Research UK awards grants to research groups at universities and funds Experimental Cancer Medicine Centres (ECMCs) in Glasgow and Edinburgh, which deliver clinical trials of new experimental treatments.

Taylor explains why the research being done in Glasgow is so important: “Scientists in the Centre are advancing our fundamental understanding of how cancer starts, grows and spreads, looking for new ways to develop treatments for the disease. A particular strength of the Centre is its focus on cancers which disproportionately affect the people of Scotland, including bowel cancer, liver cancer and mesothelioma. From finding out how bowel cancer evades the immune system to new immunotherapies for mesothelioma, we are making great strides forward through the Centre.”

Established in 1912, the former Beatson Institute has close ties to the University of Glasgow’s clinical cancer research groups. As one of four Cancer Research UK institutes, it was a founding member of Cancer Research Horizons, which was formed in 2022 to help transition cutting-edge innovation from the bench to the bedside faster.

“The Glasgow Cancer Research Horizons site plays a very important role in the Cancer Research Horizons story, employing over 30 experienced drug discovery scientists in our biosciences, medicinal chemistry and molecular sciences disciplines who use pioneering techniques, such as fragment-based drug discovery and CRISPR screening to help find new therapeutics for diseases with unmet needs,” says Taylor. “Key to the success of our Glasgow site is its integration in the Cancer Research UK Scotland Institute. The Institute has particular strengths in understanding how cancer hijacks the cell’s energy factories and how it manipulates the body to provide the resources it needs to grow and spread, like protein scaffolding and blood vessels. Discoveries in these areas will identify new treatments which will become the cancer drugs of the future.”

World-class academic institutes

As well as the University of Glasgow, the city is also home to the University of Strathclyde, both centres of research providing high quality graduates to companies and institutes in the region. As the fourth oldest university in the English-speaking world, the University of Glasgow certainly has a lot of history and prestige behind it. The university boasts an international reputation in the areas of infection, inflammation and immunology and excellence in linking basic science to the understanding of disease pathology.

The university contains the Medical Research Council (MRC)-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research (CVR), as well as CRUSH, part of CVR and established in partnership with LifeArc to address pandemic preparedness. Glasgow is also an important centre for the MRC National Mouse Genetics Network, which aims to integrate mouse genetics, cell and tissue systems and deep phenotyping with human data, and develop preclinical platforms that facilitate the rapid translation of mouse data into the clinic.

There have been a number of ground-breaking discoveries at the university over the last year alone. Scientists at the University of Glasgow and Novartis Global Health discovered a new class of compound that is potentially active against trypanosome parasites that cause human African trypanosomiasis (or sleeping sickness) and Chagas disease, showing potential for development as new medicines for these diseases. In another breakthrough, researchers at CVR identified the human gene BTN3A3, which is responsible for blocking most avian flu viruses from spilling over into people.

A collaborative environment

Collaboration between academia, charitable organisations and the industry is vital to the highly involved process of drug discovery and Glasgow’s unique ecosystem makes this possible. Taylor expands: “Collaborative models which build on the strengths of individual sectors – the creativity of academia; the patient focus of charities; the experience and resources of industry – are the future. That’s why I believe that Cancer Research Horizons as an organisation, and our willingness to establish creative partnerships with academia and the commercial sector, including the formation of venture-backed spin-out companies, and Glasgow as a city have access to the people and technology needed to take advantage of these new ways of working.”

Paul Smith, CEO at BioAscent, agrees: “Collaboration is central to the continued development of Glasgow as a globally important drug discovery hub. The region has some of Scotland’s most industrious universities, who have a strong drive to translate academic discoveries into new therapies in close partnership with the third sector and the NHS. All parties are aware that to do this successfully requires the engagement with experts who understand the practicalities, complexities and pitfalls of industrial drug discovery. This is a core competency of BioAscent and we are enthusiastic in collaborating with the universities.”

This collaboration is typified by the Glaszgo Discovery Centre, bringing together the Respiratory, Inflammation and Autoimmunity Innovative Medicine unit within AstraZeneca and the University of Glasgow. Formed in 2015, the Centre was created to lead the way for future academic-industry partnerships with a free-flowing bi-directional exchange of knowledge focused on achieving a better understanding of molecular targets in disease.

This atmosphere of cooperation and innovation creates the right conditions for turning science into business. In November 2023, University of Glasgow and University of Oxford spin-out Glox Therapeutics raised £4.3M ($5.2M) in seed funding to develop targeted therapeutics against antibiotic-resistant Gram-negative bacteria. Kerry Sharp, Director of Entrepreneurship and Investment, Scottish Enterprise, says: “Glox Therapeutics is a fantastic example of an ambitious spin-out that’s commercialising world-class life sciences research with the potential to save lives worldwide. The calibre of Scottish early-stage companies, like Glox Therapeutics, continues to attract international investment, enabling our youngest companies to positively contribute to Scotland’s economy as they scale up.”

An incubator for biotech

Just outside Glasgow, Motherwell is another hotspot for drug discovery and has recently benefitted from major investment. Antibody Analytics is a Motherwell-based biotechnology research company providing drug developers with the data required to expedite new healthcare solutions. Adele Hannigan, Chief Business Officer, says: “Motherwell has some key ingredients that combine to make it an attractive location for drug discovery research and services. First, there is the larger talent pool, conveniently located in the central belt, Motherwell-based companies can access graduates from a number of universities, colleges and research institutions. Additionally, there are incentives from Scottish Enterprise to set up businesses in assisted areas, such as Regional Selective Assistance funding, which attracts new businesses to the area and starts to build a community.”

Just north of Motherwell in the town of Newhouse is biotech incubator BioCity Glasgow, housed on a former MSD research facility. In June 2023, owners Pioneer Group secured planning permission to add 72,800 square feet of lab space at the campus, marking the company’s continued expansion in Scotland. It is home to companies like ILC Therapeutics, founded by an Emeritus Professor of Immunology from the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow) and currently developing a topical treatment for moderate/severe psoriasis; and The Antibody Company, a specialist contract manufacturing company with expertise in the production of monoclonal antibodies.

Another BioCity tenant, BioAscent provides science-led integrated drug discovery services. Paul Smith, CEO, explains why this is the perfect base for the company: “Glasgow (and Scotland) has a strong legacy in cutting-edge research. The presence of leading academic institutions not only drives research but also generates a skilled workforce and this talent pool feeds the many biotech and pharma companies in the region. For a growing company like BioAscent, there are huge advantages in being situated within a cluster. BioCity has provided us with the infrastructure and facilities essential to us as a growing business, and has led other synergies with the companies around us where we can knowledge-share, collaborate, and benefit from a supportive ecosystem.”



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