New horizon for cancer innovation

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Earlier this year, Cancer Research UK (CRUK) launched its innovation engine, Cancer Research Horizons, to streamline drug discovery through the combination of its commercial and therapeutics teams. Reece Armstrong sits down with Cancer Research Horizons’ Chief Business Officer, Tony Hickson and CEO of its Therapeutics division, Hamish Ryder, to learn about the organisation’s goals. 

RA: Could you tell us about Cancer Research Horizons? 

TH: Cancer Research Horizons is the new innovation engine from Cancer Research UK. It brings together our commercialisation and therapeutic innovation capabilities – as a ‘one stop shop’ for industry and investors to access Cancer Research UK’s (CRUK) science. Our goal is to take cutting edge innovations from the lab bench to the bedside by translating them into effective treatments and diagnostics for cancer patients; we want to see more of our world-leading research give rise to new drugs, diagnostics and devices to help patients here in the UK and around the world. This is about changing how we operate. It is about going faster in progressing our innovation to market, taking things further along the value chain as we de-risk the early science. It’s about working together with our partners in the life science sector to get world class innovations to patients. 

Hamish Ryder
Hamish Ryder

HR: We have some great assets at CRUK – access to world-leading cancer biology, strong, proven drug discovery capabilities and access to a network of life-science organisations – Cancer Research Horizons was set up to expand on these assets and make them accessible to researchers, investors and industry through collaboration. Cancer Research Horizons is committed to achieving this aim and has, since launch, worked toward it through several avenues, including our new £30m seed fund, a not-for-profit portal for cancer research tools access, and an expanding suite of entrepreneurship programmes and training programmes to support scientists who want to advance their science for patient benefit. 

Importantly, Cancer Research Horizons also brings together, for the first time, all CRUK-funded drug discovery into a single organisation – more than 200 scientists at six drug discovery sites across the UK – with a single portfolio, budget and leadership team – a radical departure from the former model of independently funded drug discovery units. The new organisation has critical mass and is a focal point for engagement with the academic network, and commercial partnering. Our ability to invest in, or partner to access, new technologies and capabilities is also enhanced within the new structure, enabling us to move faster to progress our innovations to market. 

Response-mode funding for drug discovery is being administered from the therapeutic division of the organisation for the first time, allowing for strategic build of a fully aligned portfolio stemming from the earliest stages of translational activity. 

RA: How can the integration of industry and academia help streamline drug development? 

TH: Increasingly, large pharma companies need scale, agility and access to academic partnerships to succeed. By bringing together our separate drug discovery units as one organisation, we can help them achieve those goals and be more successful in exploiting new technologies and new insights. 

We believe that by bringing together leaders across the academic and the commercial world, together with our experienced drug discovery team, from the earliest stages of drug discovery that we will take better, more informed decisions on novel targets, and move forward the most exciting ideas more rapidly to patient outcomes. Our increased scale will enable us to build differentiation into selected drug discovery capabilities and accelerate exciting projects. 

HR: It also allows us to provide support to researchers in commercialising their work, and so reduce their concerns in navigating the landscape. We offer intellectual property advice, drug discovery grant awards, expert drug discovery advice and support and access to cutting- edge drug discovery platforms all through one interface point, making it much easier for researchers and potential industry partners. 

RA: What can industry partners expect when working with Cancer Research Horizons? 

TH: Each year, Cancer Research UK funds over £400m of world-class research – spending  over £2bn in the last five years alone – and receives exclusive rights to all arising intellectual property (IP). By working with Cancer Research Horizons, industry partners will have access to Cancer Research UK’s research portfolio, as well as to its network of 4,000+ researchers and clinicians. Partnering with Cancer Research Horizons enables industry and investors the ability to tap into the wealth of UK cancer researchers – minimising contractual complexity as we have ‘background’ agreements already set up with most UK institutes regarding IP and commercialisation. 

We want to work more efficiently with partners. Our dedicated Commercial Partnership’s team has strived to break the status quo, creating a low-friction environment for partners, leveraged by simpler contracts, more transparent IP guidelines and faster material transfers. By working together, industry partners will be able to take advantage of a portfolio of IP licensing opportunities, as well as access, at the ground level, a growing list of new and innovative start- ups being formed and seed-funded through and by the organisation. 

Our commercial setup is rare. Very few organisations worldwide can access such a comprehensive commercial support division, with complete integration between the funding of the basic research, the protection/commercialisation of arising IP and the development of such IP into new drug candidates. 

HR: We want to streamline the drug discovery and development process for our industry partners. Our drug discovery sites have been instrumental in discovering and developing class-leading cancer drugs and fast-tracking them to the clinic via Cancer Research UK’s Centre for Drug Development, amongst them rucaparib and abiraterone. We want to go further and faster than previously. To achieve this, we have brought our drug discovery sites together under a single leadership team, able to move at speed to partner with academia and industry partners to deliver novel therapies into clinical development. 

RA: In terms of the UK landscape, what are some of the biggest barriers researchers face for bringing an oncology drug to market? 

HR: There are many big challenges that researchers face in their ability to translate new discoveries into clinical practice and deliver patient benefit. Among them, translation has not progressed at the same pace as discovery. This disconnect is linked to several factors. Some of these factors are inherent to the structure of the medical research sector; while others are related to the academic environment and its culture, and some are connected to the entrepreneurial mindset and the skills required to move discoveries forward.  

We have started a long-term initiative, our entrepreneurial programme, designed to promote an academic culture where entrepreneurship is enabled and rewarded, and the training, support and infrastructure is provided to accelerate the translation of discoveries and to develop the best ideas into products. 

RA: How does Cancer Research Horizons benefit from Cancer Research UK’s £400 million-plus research portfolio? 

TH: Cancer Research UK annually invests £40 million in research. Cancer Research Horizons will act as a gateway for collaborators to access this research portfolio, as well Cancer Research UK’s network of over 4,000 researchers. 

The CRUK annual report for 21/22 shows how the £40 million is spent across which types of cancer. This funding is distributed between funding discovery research at our core institutes, and at universities around the UK, clinical research, cancer grand challenges, and translational research. 

The spend is largely dedicated to novel in-depth understanding of cancer that reveals new potential therapeutic (and other) avenues to patient benefit. The insights gained through our close integration with the network allows us to move very early on the translation of the latest and most exciting science. 

RA: Cancer Research Horizons will also provide business support for researchers who perhaps aren’t sure how to tackle the translational gap. Is this an area researchers often struggle with? 

TH: Research grants focus on research and investors focus on well validated ideas – but most of our novel inventions sit in the development gap between the two.

Tony Hickson
Tony Hickson

It is unsurprising that many pharma companies are increasingly keen to work with academia or academic spin-out

companies to supplement their own R&D; most novel ideas stem from academia. However, many researchers struggle to know how to translate and commercialise their research. A common obstacle for researchers wanting to translate their ideas is lack of access to funding, industry-grade resources, and expertise; without access to these, academic ideas often fall at an early hurdle. 

Recent studies have shown that academic inventors contributed 37% of cancer medicines between 2001-2019. Taken together with the fact that pharma companies are now sourcing 63% of their R&D innovation externally (Ernst & Young), it is not surprising that companies want to supplement their own R&D efforts with partnerships with academic/academic spin-out companies. Cancer Research Horizons was set-up and strengthen these partnerships, matching academic discovery research with industry partners, with the goal of accelerating drugs to patients. 

We are tackling this challenge head-on with our recently announced Seed Fund, which aims to provide rapid, early-stage funding to researchers and start-up companies to bridge the gap between innovative ideas, and treatments, diagnostics and medical devices. 

RA: What kind of cancer treatments do you think will emerge from this business? 

HR: Our drive will always be focused on the most exciting new science that has the potential to drive breakthroughs in cancer therapy. Therefore, we are aiming for first-in-class, or otherwise highly differentiated new drugs. 

Immunotherapy will certainly be an ongoing major focus, but also new emerging areas of science from CRUK network. 

TH: Through Cancer Research Horizons we will be able to invest earlier and in more novel science than traditional venture capital investors, enabling us to move faster on some of the most novel approaches (e.g. cancers of unmet need like brain cancer/glioblastoma), or niche conditions (e.g. rare/ paediatric cancers) which may not be picked up by industry, or require a lot more ‘de-risking’ before they are. 

We are also bringing a mix of seed funding and drug discovery capabilities to bear. Through these mechanisms we have become much more than just a ‘virtual biotech’ and more akin to a real one, but without the shareholder pressure to focus on larger indications, less risky targets or short-term returns. 

HR: To give some specific examples, going forward, immunotherapy will certainly be a major focus for Cancer Research Horizons, but there are also new emerging areas of science arising from our Cancer Research UK and Grand Challenge network, such as DNA Damage Repair, RNAi and extrachromosomal DNA. In terms of new modalities, we will develop our small molecule and antibody capabilities but also evaluate our scope to support the creation of next-generation therapies, including nucleic acids and gene editing. 

RA: What’s the future outlook for Cancer Research Horizons? 

TH: Through building even closer integration with the academic network (within CRUK and outside), partnership with commercial organisations, and continued enhancement of key translational platforms, we are setting out to achieve a step change in delivery of patient benefit surrogates (including new therapies into clinical trials) over the coming years. 

We are aiming to achieve over 25% of our funded academics engaging in translational or entrepreneurial activity in the future. 

Our goal is to create a sustainable pipeline of industry partnerships for Cancer Research Horizons Therapeutic Innovation division and for Cancer Research UK’s Centre for Drug Development to maximise the chances of new medicines reaching patients. 

We also want to develop a fair and equitable share of future equity exits, research tool sales and royalty streams, contributing towards long-term sustainability and generating a surplus to allow further reinvestment in cancer research. And ultimately, we want to see patient impact via a track record of transformative medicines, tests, devices and algorithms reaching market. Our team is targeting a doubling of progression of new breakthrough medicines into the clinic (from one to two new clinical starts per annum within five years). We also plan to use our position in the translational ecosystem to drive forward new paradigms in cancer treatment, aligned to CRUK’s strategic priorities. 

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