Putting human data at the centre of drug discovery


James Peach is the Co-Founder and CEO of Human Centric Drug Discovery (HCDD), an Oxford University spin-out improving neurology drug discovery by bringing more human data to the process. Peach shared his insight with DDW’s Megan Thomas.

MT: In what ways can human data benefit neurology drug discovery?

JP: At the end of the day, what matters to patients is all that matters. But while drug discovery ends in patients, it begins in cells and mice. Curing cells and mice doesn’t always help patients, but it predicts if new drugs are likely to be harmful or helpful. Most new drugs fail during human trials, which is expensive and wasteful: 80% of drug R&D spend is consumed in these failures, and 80% of this is due to efficacy and safety, so predicting this is very important and valuable. 

However, in neurology, this prediction isn’t very accurate, which is understandable as humans have different brains from other species. Bringing human data earlier in the drug discovery process can improve this prediction, reducing the chances that a new drug will fail in patients and increasing the confidence of starting a new clinical programme.

MT: Why is human-centric data so important? What is the alternative, and why is it unique? 

JP: Human-centric data is important as it directly reflects the patient. We have seen this in large scale genetic studies and the development and use of biomarkers, which are now standard in R&D. However, we have not seen much use of routine health data where records of patients are analysed to understand which current medications have an unexpected positive effect on their neurology conditions. This gives real-world prediction of a safe and druggable mechanism, which is unique. We can now complement that with human iPSC cell lines, which are challenging to use in neurology but now stable in our hands, to give further human validation. Previously we used immortalised cell lines which work well in cancer, a disease characterised by cells replicating out of control, but not so well in neurology.

MT: What are the primary challenges associated with human-centric data and how do you overcome these?

JP: The strengths of real-world data are size and human relevance, but the challenges are the quality and accessibility of the data. Unlike clinical trial data, real world data was only intended to enable the delivery of healthcare so it’s the minimum necessary dataset for that purpose. Important information that is well known to the clinical team may not be recorded in the dataset, and the databases and data governance are not set up for data extraction for research use. 

These challenges are being gradually overcome as electronic health records become more common and broader, for example hospital billing, prescription and laboratory systems are increasingly linked. Increased use of health records for clinical audit and quality management mean that the data is maintained at higher quality and completion. Finally, the opportunity of health data research has led to the simplification of health data extraction and re-use, such as via the HIPAA BAA agreement in the US.

MT: As a young company, and with Britain’s exit from the EU in mind, have you experienced challenges related to talent acquisition? Is this a concern for HCDD?

JP: HCDD, like all companies, only succeeds if we can attract the best staff and any restriction to that is a business risk. Britain has for a long time been a magnet for research talent, attracted by our scientific excellence, the common language and the integration into global career pathways. We have been lucky with recruiting talented staff but Brexit has made this more difficult, as has political instability. This remains a concern and while we are reassured by the government’s commitments to the life sciences industry, this should be delivered in a stable, long-term context making the UK an attractive place to invest in and work.

MT: Can you please share the process involved in spinning HCDD out from Oxford? Did you encounter any challenges and if so, how did you overcome them? 

HCDD initially started as a research programme within Oxford University, with translational funding from the venture capital fund Oxford Science Enterprises. This made it easier for us to spin out as we had a framework agreement for investment and IP and as I had worked in venture capital previously, I understood the process and principles. However, we span out during Covid so there were delays as all organisations moved to virtual working, and most importantly we struggled to find lab space. We were delighted when the Oxford Trust converted new lab space in the Wood Centre, which enabled us to get set up quickly.

DDW Volume 24 – Issue 4, Fall 2023 – Neuroscience Guide


James PeachJames Peach is the Co-Founder and CEO of Human Centric Drug Discovery (HCDD), an expert in developing, analysing and combining data from induced pluripotent stem cells, large scale genetics studies, and population health data. Peach started his career in strategy consulting with McKinsey, then set up a cancer genomics programme with AstraZeneca, Pfizer and CRUK, then set up Genomics England, and has since been working on health data commercialisation in start-ups and government partnerships.

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