ELRIG’s Drug Discovery 2023 will be taking place at ACC Liverpool, UK from 18-19 October 2023, focusing on the importance of a diverse life science ecosystem. Megan Thomas caught up with those planning to attend this year.
New approaches and thought processes
When it comes to diversity in drug discovery, this includes our scientists’ and pharma workforce’s approach to innovation which will help advance the industry. Such approaches may include cellular technologies for drug discovery, such as a 3D screening model, a topic which will be discussed at Drug Discovery 2023. Other approaches range from augmenting R&D with AI to HIT identification and screening, as well as delving into the diversity of chemistry and biopharmaceutical discovery.
Dr Michelle Fraser is Head of Cell & Gene Therapy at global health science solutions company, Revvity. When it comes to the technologies driving drug discovery, she thinks that the ability to specifically edit regions of the genome using CRISPR/Cas9 is particularly revolutionary. She says: “From turning genes off to look at the effect on cellular function, making single base changes within a coding or non-coding region to see if it impacts protein function, to testing drug candidates on genetic variants, we now have unprecedented genetic control to understand the link between genetics, disease and treatment.”
An insightful way to assess which new areas are gaining traction is to follow the money. Dr Michael Saleko is Investment Director at venture capital investor and venture builder, Start Codon. From his perspective, he thinks that the sector is embracing informatics more. He says: “While AI and machine learning are now hot topics, many in the sector have been using these technologies for years: from identifying cells of interest from a mixture, such as those that are dead; to natural language processing, which in its infancy was used mainly to trawl through the copious amounts of literature out there to identify correlations. With transformer and large language models (LLMs), AI is assisting bioinformaticians, as well as bench-based researchers. For example, to identify protein structures and even binding pockets from sequence data and modelling potential hits in silico. The use of these tools is increasing efficiency and the likelihood of success.”
Lorna Cuddon, Managing Director of Zyme Communications, weighs in on some of the trends in the sector: “We’re seeing an unprecedented number of start-ups and university spin outs being created, there is a clear drive to nurture and commercialise new innovation within drug discovery.”
Where is the innovation?
The case for new approaches and thought processes is clear, so in which drug discovery areas is it being embraced and developed? Dr Martin Main, Chief Scientific Officer, Medicines Discovery Catapult, believes this is a pivotal time for drug discovery. He says: “Through advances in genomics, single-cell biology and increasingly sophisticated analysis of large data sets, we are gaining a far greater understanding of human disease and how it varies and segments across the patient population. That understanding is likely to generate a whole host of exciting and diverse new drug targets.”
Dr Main adds that this deeper understanding of disease and associated target opportunity coincides with an ever-expanding suite of therapeutic approaches that can be deployed to tackle these targets, enabling, in principle, a much greater proportion of targets to be prosecuted successfully.
Dr Fraser, on the other hand, thinks cell and gene therapy (CGT) is the new frontier of disease treatment innovation. She says: “As the tools available to edit the genome become more precise and delivery vehicles become more directable, there is increasing control over the CGTs that use them, resulting in greater efficacy and improved safety.”
From a financial perspective, Dr Saleko points out that with LLMs and AI agents, an independent researcher, lacking coding skills, can interrogate vast amounts of data and information to test hypothesis upfront. He says: “This is enabling innovation by opening up access to information and what it means in a rapid way; that simply wasn’t possible before. We have always known the answers to many scientific questions were out there, in publications and patents, but the ability to ask specific questions and mine all literature is enabling things to move much faster.”
Cuddon reiterates the focus on innovation across CGT, particularly in Europe, with companies exploring different cell types and novel cancer antigens to target solid tumours. She says: “The life science network continues to evolve to incorporate the latest technology advances and we’re seeing these being applied collaboratively across the sector.”
Making the most of the opportunity
Events such as Drug Discovery 2023 confirm what Dr Main says when discussing the industry’s future success: “Collaboration is key”. Dr Main continues: “We are already moving in this direction, with increased sharing of ideas and data and more flexible business models that deliver projects through partnership or extensive outsourcing. I think it will become even more important for success going forward. I would also specifically highlight the importance of considering the patient perspective in defining drug discovery strategies and delivering medicines to market. In MDC, this is an area where we have worked extensively, establishing multi-partner syndicates in areas of unmet patient need and involving patients, charities and clinicians in establishing priorities and shaping strategies.”
According to Dr Fraser, there is plenty of opportunity as CGTs move rapidly from research to the clinic, driven by advances in payload and delivery. Dr Saleko says: “As these therapies become more broadly accessible, there are also opportunities in manufacturing and scale up to reduce lead times and costs, improving accessibility to reach all the patients that need them and managing the patient experience in the hospital or out-patient setting.”
Dr Saleko adds that the democratisation of technology through LLMs should be embraced across the entire drug discovery process. He says: “This could take place even before an experiment has been run at the bench; from predicting toxicity and contributing to net zero via less plastic consumables use; to stratifying the right patient populations via deep genomic mutational signature analysis. We must consider though, that as we move to a more probabilistically driven approach, the need to widen the sample base to a more expansive and globally representative data set will be of paramount importance, so that we create drugs of the future for all.”
From Cuddon’s perspective, with market conditions expected to remain challenging for some time, early-stage companies need to focus on extending cash runways and delivering data. She says: “We’re seeing an increase in companies seeking to raise their profile to achieve commercial partnerships to generate revenues or potential trade sales.”
DDW Volume 24 – Issue 4, Fall 2023