Where is the drug discovery expertise happening in the UK?


The United Kingdom has established itself as a hub for drug discovery expertise worldwide. Here, DDW’s Megan Thomas highlights the research taking place and where this is happening.

The Golden Triangle

Though the UK is constantly expanding in terms of where drug discovery can flourish geographically, there is no denying both the historical and the current impact of the ‘Golden Triangle’, a phrase which refers to the cities of London, Oxford, and Cambridge. There is a range of reasons why this area has become focal point for drug discovery, one of which is the fact that it encompasses the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge, two of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world. This environment of research excellence, in turn, fosters R&D, innovation, spin-offs, start-ups, networking, collaboration and entrepreneurship, which sets a sturdy foundation that attracts funding, and creates an appealing work culture.

A company within this ecosystem is STORM Therapeutics, a clinical stage biotechnology company creating novel small molecule therapies that inhibit RNA modifying enzymes (RME) for use in oncology and other diseases. Following the work of its founders, Professor Tony Kouzarides and Professor Eric Miska, in the field of RNA epigenetics, STORM spun-out from the University of Cambridge’s Gurdon Institute, a research facility specialising in developmental biology and cancer biology, funded by The Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK.

Jerry McMahon, CEO of STORM Therapeutics, says: “Cambridge, along with London and Oxford, is part of the illustrious biotech Golden Triangle and is known for its cutting-edge research environment. Cambridge boasts the world-renowned university alongside a biotech and pharma cluster situated throughout the city and its surrounding science parks, all of which helps attract top scientific talent.”

Alchemab, on the other hand, has developed a highly differentiated platform which enables the identification of novel drug targets and therapeutics by analysis of patient antibody repertoires, drawing from the expertise in Cambridge to progress the company’s mission to build a broad pipeline of protective therapeutics for hard-to-treat diseases. Alchemab’s CEO, Young Kwon, says: “Alchemab’s research is based in Cambridge, and this is predominantly due to the rich antibody legacy of the region, including Cambridge Antibody Technology, MedImmune and Kymab, and the resulting talent and capabilities. Today, Alchemab benefits from important local partnerships including with Illumina and Nvidia for access to the Cambridge-1 supercomputer/DGX Cloud.”

Beyond the Golden Triangle

In terms of investment, Dr Michael Salako, MBA, Investment Director of Start Codon, says: “There is lots of exciting drug discovery work happening across the UK, not just in the Cambridge, London, Oxford ‘Golden Triangle’. Although Start Codon is Cambridge-based, the company tap into ideas and founders from across the UK.

Dr Salako says there are some clear fields of work associated with different areas, which include:

Hertfordshire as a cell and gene therapy hub, with a number of companies in this space clustered around Stevenage. For instance, the region is home to Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst, a location where companies are able to develop and commercialise cutting edge therapeutics. The campus is home to GSK, the Cell and Gene Therapy Manufacturing Catapult, LifeArc and Cytiva, alongside a growing cluster of start-up companies which together have raised £2.9 billion in funding.

Next, Salako highligts how Northumberland and the North East of the UK are recognised for pharmaceutical manufacturing prowess. Indeed, this is bolstered by top tier universities like Newcastle University, which specialises in structure-based approaches for drug discovery, developing innovative technologies that support the identification of new medicines, and is well-established in cancer drug discovery. The university aims to identify treatments for life-threatening anti-microbial diseases and metabolic disorders. One of the research themes at the university is Discovery of Medicines, which hosts the Cancer Research UK Newcastle Drug Discovery Unit. Moreover, through the North East’s two science parks Newcastle Helix and NETPark, as well as centres of excellence, such as National Innovation Centres for Data and Ageing, the International Centre for Life and the National Healthcare Photonics Centre at CPI, companies working in pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, advanced therapies and ageing can access expertise in R&D, innovation and large-scale manufacturing, and operate from a choice of facilities.

Northern Ireland

“Northern Ireland is a medtech super-hub,” says Salako. According to Invest Northern Ireland, the region’s history in health innovation dates back over 40 years to Professor Pantridge, who pioneered the first portable defibrillator, then reaches into the present to recent spin-out success stories from local universities, Queen’s University and Ulster University. Government investment of £1.3 billion has offered ample opportunities for healthcare in Northern Ireland, including the Centre for Digital Healthcare Technology (CDHT), the Institute of Research Excellence for Advanced Clinical Healthcare (iREACH Health), the Global Innovation Institute (GII), the Personalised Medicine Centre, and the Centre for Food and Drug Discovery.


Salako adds that Scotland, as a devolved nation, has an innovative NHS system that has propelled it to become a key site for translational medical research. From the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research in Glasgow, to Edinburgh Drug Discovery in the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Genetics and Cancer (IGC). At ELRIG’s Scottish Research and Drug Development Forum meeting, DDW’s Diana Spencer provided a snapshot of drug discovery in Scotland. She says: “As a whole, the event emphasised the breadth of preclinical research taking place in central Scotland at the moment, the level of expertise available in the region and the vital importance of bringing this expertise together in collaborative projects between charitable organisations, industry and academia.”

Zooming in on another region of Scotland with impressive drug discovery presence is Motherwell, which in recent years benefited from major investment plans which improved not just the sector but increased the appeal of towns and communities across North Lanarkshire – which in turn creates an environment in which a talent pool can grow. Adele Hannigan is Chief Business Officer at Antibody Analytics, a Motherwell-based biotechnology research company providing drug developers with the data required to expedite new healthcare solutions. Hannigan says: “Motherwell has some key ingredients that combine to make it an attractive location for drug discovery research and services. First, there is the larger talent pool, conveniently located in the central belt, Motherwell-based companies can access graduates from a number of Universities, Colleges and research institutions, from Edinburgh to Glasgow. On the flip side, it’s commutable for employees wishing to base themselves in these larger, cultural centres. Additionally, there are incentives from Scottish Enterprise to set up businesses in assisted areas, such as Regional Selective Assistance funding, which attracts new businesses to the area and starts to build a community.”

Academic translational sciences

Dr Cathy Tralau-Stewart, Chief Scientific Officer of ValiRx, and Executive Director of The Milner Therapeutics Institute, says: “On my return from 10 years working in Silicon Valley, I observed that the UK had developed a sophisticated drug discovery ecosystem, and although based around similar models to the US landscape, it had key points of difference.” She says this included an expanded focus on academic translational sciences, with many institutions, including Dundee, Cardiff, UCL, Manchester, and Birmingham developing areas of science related to therapeutics discovery, and others such as Cancer Research Horizons and Alzheimer’s Research UK focusing on specific therapy areas.

Easier access to a greater supply of funding and developing stronger connections with global pharma and investors would be of significant benefit to the UK drug discovery landscape.

Academic translational sciences is an approach which translates scientific discoveries and research into practical applications that benefit human health. Dr Tralau-Stewart says: “Indeed, many academic institutions have established new ways of supporting the discovery pipeline, providing tech transfer offices to support licensing, and entrepreneurship and start-up support through fundraising, accelerators, and incubators. Despite the overall reduction in major pharma R&D centres in the UK, global pharma companies continue to engage with academic and biotech organisations here, particularly in hotspots such as the Golden Triangle, the Northwest, and Scotland, through the strong networks that have been developed between these organisations. Moreover, the UK has a significant portfolio of highly skilled Contract Research Organisations that offer the expertise to enable academics, small biotechs, and pharma groups to progress pipelines.”

She identifies a key challenge facing the drug discovery sector, which is the lack of funding for translational (target to clinic) activities, workforce skills development, and the acceleration of the growth of start-up companies. She continues: “Easier access to a greater supply of funding and developing stronger connections with global pharma and investors would be of significant benefit to the UK drug discovery landscape.”

Dr Tralau-Stewart’s perspective is exemplified across several institutions in the UK. For example, the department of Translational Health Sciences at Bristol University, which is supported by funders such as the NIHR, the Medical Research Council, and charities such as the Wellcome Trust and British Heart Foundation. Professor Emma Clark, Interim Head of Translational Health Sciences, says: “We perform world leading translational research in multiple health science areas including cardiovascular, endocrinology, neuroscience, musculoskeletal, regenerative and renal medicine. Our research community of clinicians, clinical trialists, discovery scientists, and statisticians develop pioneering treatments for patients and ground-breaking discoveries in basic science.”

Experts speak

DDW asked a range of drug discovery experts where they thought the drug discovery expertise happening in the UK.

Maina Bhaman, Partner at Sofinnova Partners, says: “The UK is an attractive space for drug discovery companies and a prime environment for investment due to its talent, infrastructure, and genomics research. World-class talent is evident in areas like Cambridge, where the discovery of the best-selling drug Humira at Cambridge Antibody Technology has fostered a hub of biologics companies including Kymab (acquired by Sanofi), Crescendo Biologics, Bicycle Therapeutics, and T-Therapeutics.

“The UK’s infrastructure is bolstered by initiatives such as the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult, supporting the research and manufacturing of cutting-edge therapies. The country’s pioneering genomics research, crucial for future drug discovery, is demonstrated by institutes like the Wellcome Sanger Institute and projects like the 100,000 Genomes Project. Emerging UK biotech firms like Mosaic Therapeutics, Enhanc3D Genomics, and Nucleome Therapeutics are using these genomic insights to innovate.”

Guillaume Trebuchet, Clinical Development Scientist of CellProthera, says: “CellProthera has selected a number of clinical centres in the UK for its EXCELLENT Phase I/IIb trial, currently in the final stages of evaluating its lead ATMP, ProtheraCytes, targeting regeneration of cardiac tissue after severe Acute Myocardial Infarction (AMI) to prevent heart failure. These leading UK centers are in London, Edinburgh, Birmingham, and Dundee in addition to eight French centers. CellProthera selected the UK centres for their excellence in the conduct of clinical research with dedicated staff, equipment, availability of imaging platforms and high interest in cell therapy cardiovascular trials especially University Hospital of Birmingham equipped with a bi-plane Cathlab. CellProthera also appointed the Newcastle Centre for Life’s GMP cell therapy centre to produce the ATMP.”

James Barder, CEO of Futura says: “The UK is a hotspot for life science innovation and an ideal home for Futura Medical, which has developed Eroxon, a breakthrough topical gel formulation for erectile dysfunction – now sold in the UK and other international markets. Estimated to be the third-biggest biopharma market in the world, behind the US and China, the UK cultivates innovation, attracting high calibre talent that has certainly benefited us. Situated at Surrey University science park and listed on London’s AIM Market since 2003, the market has provided long term support for growing healthcare companies. This is reflected by our recent share price performance outperforming the index in the past year.”

Dr Debora Lucarelli, CEO of Enhanc3D Genomics, says: “Being based in Cambridge allows us access to the rich network of pharma, biotechs, clinicians, academics and investors which serves as the perfect environment for mentorship, collaboration and partnership, whilst maximising our chances of translating our technology into the healthcare industry.”

Dr Fiona Withey, CEO of TrakCel, says: “As a leading provider of software solutions to the advanced therapy sector, TrakCel has facilitated product development and global export from their headquarters in Cardiff, UK. TrakCel based itself in the UK in 2012 because uniting the technology and life-sciences sectors requires a strong, diverse talent pool to draw from, which the UK offers. The UK, and specifically Wales, has been hugely supportive of life sciences and building a highly collaborative network. This includes support for export and expansion into new territories as well as for innovation and development. TrakCel has utilised this support to drive their products forward and embrace new technology to globally support the broad range of cell and gene therapy classes targeting wide indications.”

Dr Matt Segall, CEO and Company Director of Optibrium, says: “Cambridge has a longstanding history of innovation, with foundational scientific discoveries such as the structure of DNA tied to the university. It has a vibrant community of life-science companies, from global pharma to smaller start-ups. This makes Cambridge a great place to forge collaborations and find new recruits. It’s also where my Co-founder Ed and I met in 2001, at a company called Camitro, from which the foundational technologies of Optibrium emerged. The strong network we have built in the area has supported Optibrium’s growth.”

There are lots of exciting drug discovery work happening across the UK, not just in the Cambridge, London, Oxford.

Marc Davies, VP R&D at Leucid Bio, said: “London and the South East is a global hub of scientific and clinical distinction. By basing Leucid Bio within this region, we ensure our research remains at the cutting edge through close and mutually beneficial collaborations with our academic partners, access to core facilities and the ability to attract high quality scientists. It also allows us to work closely with world class physicians based in centres of excellence for cellular therapies. This ensures rapid and streamlined translation of our research from the bench to the bedside, with the ultimate aim of providing novel treatments for patients with cancer.”

According to Dr Michelle Fraser, Business Unit Manager, Base Editing at Revvity: “The UK, and especially the Cambridge region, is well known for its pharmaceutical innovation. Revvity is a global company, and we continue to develop our Cambridge-based expertise in cell and gene therapy to support the global pharmaceutical industry. Revvity has a specialised CRISPR gene editing and base editing Cambridge footprint and a long-standing relationship with the regional universities. Cambridge is a focal point for many pharmaceutical companies working in this therapeutic area. Revvity has its own research team based in Cambridge, as well as cell line engineering and drug screening services, and bioproduction. We also recently opened the Scientific Centre of Excellence for Genomic Insight at our Cambridge site.”

Remy Martin, Commercial Manager at eXmoor pharma, says: “eXmoor established itself in the UK cell and gene therapy sector in 2007, expanding in the UK with CGT process development facilities in 2017 and has further committed to the UK with its new Cell and Gene Therapy Centre, a GMP manufacturing facility. Almost a third of all European CGT developers are based in the UK, thanks in large part to the UK’s excellent academic science, and the growing UK CGT manufacturing support ecosystem. The UK is additionally able to serve the US market with excellent international cultural and linguistic links. Bristol also provides an excellent regional base, with numerous regional universities supporting a great talent pool.”

Dr Frank Craig, CEO of Sphere Fluidics, says: “The UK is world-class in the pharmaceutical and biotech sectors, with drug discovery clusters in circa 12 regions across the UK. To create a new pharma or biotech company takes an entrepreneurial idea, investment, facilities, employees, and IP. Due to the need for these factors, many companies, including Sphere Fluidics, base themselves nearby universities and/or hospitals, investors, and facilities. Our recent facilities expansion to Granta Park, Cambridgeshire, a leading UK science park, exemplifies this approach. Our sector is also reinforced by the presence and movements of major Pharma companies and mid-size biotechs, with whom we have a number of collaborations.”

Dr Sheelagh Frame, CSO of Ubiquigent, adds: “As highlighted in the Scottish Government’s Innovation Strategy in June 2023, which included a £100 million investment into Scotland’s science and technology companies, Dundee’s Life Sciences Innovation District is one of the UK’s best kept secrets. The district boasts drug discovery spinouts, research institutes and the UK’s top University for biological sciences (University of Dundee), which houses the Centre for Targeted Protein Degradation. Situated in the centre of this district, Ubiquigent is positioned to engage with a network of life science expertise, capabilities, and organisations, supporting us in driving deubiquitinase (DUB)-focused drug discovery and development through exciting partnership opportunities.”

Dr Mike Daniels, VP Product at Evonetix, comments: “Our headquarters in Cambridge puts us at the centre of one of the UK’s richest knowledge hubs – an environment eager to support start-up technologies. Local engagement with the University of Cambridge, Pharmaceutical and Biotech companies provides support, direction and early adoption opportunities of immense value to both technology developers and users.”

Dr Fiona McLaughlin, Chief Scientific Officer, Therapeutics, at Avacta, says: “Avacta Life Sciences chose the life science cluster at Scale Space, in the White City Innovation District as the home of its Therapeutics HQ in 2022. A year on, and we can see the benefit of being a member of this thriving life science hub in London, that includes almost 200 life science companies. We have access to a huge talent pool from Imperial College and several other London Universities, and have completed a recruitment round to ensure we have access to cutting edge drug discovery in our labs.”

Billy Boyle, CEO of Owlstone Medical, comments: “We are one of over 170 companies on the Cambridge Science Park, embedded within the broader scientific hubs. This includes the Cambridge Biomedical Campus with Addenbrooke’s Hospital, making local collaborations with clinical facilities, such as our EVOLUTION trial for early detection of lung cancer using Breath Biopsy, accessible.

DDW Volume 24 – Issue 4, Fall 2023

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