Megan Thomas, DDW, comments on her experience of ELRIG UK’s Drug Discovery 2021
Having started my role as Editorial Assistant at DDW during the pandemic – my first within the drug discovery industry – my instinct was, “what a time to be in the thick of it”. As 2021 unfolded, scientists developed Covid-19 vaccines which combatted regularly emerging variants, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended a vaccine to be given to children living in sub-Saharan Africa who are at risk of contracting Malaria1, Covid-19 testing facilities were set up with speed and precision, researchers found potential endometriosis drug targets2, cancer research milestones were reached3,4,5 and much more.
I’ve settled into the role and my initial instinct has been continuously reaffirmed: this is an exciting time to be reporting on the drug discovery industry, both in the UK and abroad. ELRIG UK’s Drug Discovery 2021 centred around three themes: Re-invent, Re-imagine and Re-connect, which played out in a myriad of ways over the course of the event at ACC Liverpool.
When accepting his ELRIG lifetime achievement award, Steve Rees, VP Discovery Biology, R&D, AstraZeneca, said: “There has never been a more exciting time to be in science”, which speaks volumes given the scope of his career in the industry.
Repeatedly, keynote speakers and experts spoke of the way in which the industry has rallied together during the Covid-19 pandemic to re-invent existing vaccine technology and overcome what will be looked back on as a triumphant scientific milestone in human history. Empty buildings were transformed into fully functioning testing centres in a matter of weeks, filled with professionals from across the UK, and Rob Howes, Director of AstraZeneca’s Cambridge Covid-19 Testing Centre, spoke of the camaraderie and commitment in that initial period, which involved scenes of cupboard-raiding to find equipment that could be re-purposed and used to innovate and automate the testing process.
Further to that, Rees spoke of the strides the industry has made over the last 30 years that could allow for such an all-encompassing response force, with Rees specifying that FDA approvals over these last three decades have never been more productive and targeted.
What struck me about the discussions taking place at DD2021 was the forward-looking attitude of scientists. Howes called this “heading into uncertainty”, while Rees mirrored the sentiment, comparing “what we want versus what is presently possible”.
It is with this attitude that we find scientists barely pause for breath before using what we have learnt from the Covid-19 vaccine development process and what is possible now (which, might I add, was not possible little over a year ago), to imagine a future which includes a potential treatment for cancer, HIV and other fatal diseases. It is with this spirit of re-imagination that we find researchers from the University of Oxford and the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research are already building on the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 to develop a vaccine to treat cancer6, and that researchers from Pfizer and BioNTech were able to submit data for the vaccination of children 5 to 12 years7.
Before attending DD2021, I was told of the value of in-person events, which I couldn’t fully appreciate until now. This event displayed to me that this is an industry fueled by not just intelligence and discipline (of which there is plenty), but also by collaboration, connection and a constant drive to grow and change. This was evident during workshops hosted by Allan Jordan and another by Anita Ramanathan.
“Gaining a career in industry: Learning tips and tricks from the inside”, led by Allan Jordan, Director of Oncology at Sygnature Discovery, connected academics looking to enter the drug discovery industry and shared insight into what was needed to succeed. Together with a group of new employees from Sygnature who had recently been in the same position as some audience members, and rather than fostering competition, the event showcased the power that teamwork has. The group shared their journeys in order to uplift others.
Anita Ramanathan, whose company Word Cortex helps professionals bridge the gap between doing the work and communicating its worth, presented “Exceptional Science Presentations: How to Effectively Communicate the Value of Your Work”. She explained to the audience how as scientists, they would always be required to communicate their work – but that often, they’d have only a few minutes to do so. In an effort to ensure researchers make the most of their work and get the most back from those who have the power to turn their work into possible treatments, technology or innovations for the future, Ramanathan displayed yet again the importance of meaningful communication and connection in the industry.
I look forward to my next event and opportunity in this resilient and welcoming industry.