Recent OBE recipient and SLAS Europe 2022 keynote speaker Steve Rees tells DDW’s Megan Thomas his thoughts on the themes of SLAS Europe 2022, the value of returning to face-to-face meetings, the influence the organisation has on his work and the industry’s key changes since the SLAS was formed in 2010.
SLAS Europe 2022 themes
SLAS meetings have always focused on understanding emerging trends in drug discovery and the application of novel technologies to advance new medicines to the clinic. In recent years, technologies such as genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, functional genomics and cell imaging, combined with advances in data science have transformed our understanding of disease identifying new drug targets and new disease biomarkers. This has been accompanied by the creation of many new drug modalities with the ambition of making every target tractable and every disease treatable. This creates huge opportunities for drug discovery and indeed society and these opportunities are discussed at length at SLAS Europe 2022.
The scientific tracks at the 2022 SLAS Europe meeting discuss major opportunities available to the drug discovery scientist to create better medicines. The last decade has seen a revolution in the technologies available to understand disease, to identify new drug targets, and to progress medicines into the clinic.This includes the advancement of a number of new therapeutic modalities from oligonucleotides to PROTACs to CRISPR, the aim of which is to make every drug target tractable. It also includes the creation of stem and primary cell models of disease in 2D and 3D culture to increase the translatability of our target discovery and screening assays, and the creation of a number of technologies to better understand and predict drug mechanism of action. Each of these topics will be discussed in the Emerging Biology session.A rtificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) models are being applied across drug discovery from target identification to chemistry design and synthesis to clinical trials analysis and have the potential to transform the efficiency of drug discovery while increasing projects success. The challenges of creating data sets to underpin AI and ML will be described in the Emerging Technology track as will the application of these models to inform drug discovery.
Application to AstraZeneca
We are already seeing the impact of these approaches in AstraZeneca, particularly in target identification and medicinal chemistry and these approaches are changing the way we work today. We are also seeing continued advances in automation across all aspects of drug discovery; automation remains critical as we continue to miniaturise our experiments, particularly in assays involving scarce and expensive cells including stem and primary cells. It is only through automation and miniaturisation that we will be able to create robust assays that can be used at scale to increase the success of drug discovery. This topic will also be discussed in this session.
Collaboration in drug discovery
Success in drug discovery involves collaboration and partnership across government, academia, biotech, CRO, vendor and the pharmaceutical sectors. It is only through partnering that we can create the best technologies and progress the best drug discovery projects. The third track at SLAS Europe discusses the opportunities for partnership in the EU Life Sciences ecosystem, and the opportunities for career development as scientist move between different sectors of the drug discovery community and increasingly between different countries.
In-person events & SLAS
I am a firm believer in the value of face-to-face meetings while continuing to take advantage of the opportunities that can be created through virtual interaction. Face-to-face meetings enable direct communication between scientists facilitating knowledge exchange and collaboration, and the creation of networks that are critical to success. The pandemic has demonstrated that it is possible to make science available to anyone in the world. At future meetings, leading scientists can present their work to local audiences without travelling, increasing the quality of scientific meetings, while also making that content available to scientist who may not be in a position to travel. The future will combine the best of face-to-face with the best of virtual to create open events available to all in a sustainable manner. Throughout my career I have been an active volunteer in organisations including SLAS. Scientific societies bring our communication together to enable information exchange, communication, career development, networking and collaboration. Throughout my career, new collaborations and science projects have directly arisen from conversations at scientific meetings and I fully expect this to continue.
Key industry changes
Since the foundation of SLAS in 2010, the fundamental questions to be addressed in drug discovery are unchanged: which drug target should I work on? How do I find a molecule with activity at that target? What is my target patient population? How will my proposed medicine benefit patients? What has changed are the technologies available to address these questions. In 2010, nobody had heard of CRISPR, PROTACs, CryoEM, AI, mRNA medicines; technologies such as genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, oligonucleotides, cell therapy were in their infancy. The advances in technology in the last 12 years have been transformative and have resulted in a consistent increase in the number of new medicines being approved by the FDA each year, have created entirely new fields of personalised medicines and diagnostics and are leading to a revolution in medicine types including mRNA, gene and cell therapies.
Alongside this, the skill sets required in drug discovery are changing as drug discovery embraces all aspects of data science; early career professionals need a broader skill set to succeed. Last, the drug discovery ecosystem continues to grow with many universities engaged in drug discovery and a huge increase in investment in biotech driven in part through investments by organisations including Alphabet, The Gates Foundation and Amazon with the ability to match big pharma in terms of research budgets. The last decade has seen transformative change, and that rate of change is only increasing. It will be exciting to be involved in drug discovery as SLAS grows to its twentieth year.