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Why Are University Collaborations with Pharma So Important?

on Wednesday, 10 March 2021.

With the UK continuing to pave the way for great strides in life sciences, how can collaborations between the pharmaceuticals and higher education sectors help to accelerate the country's advancements?

The UK is playing a leading role in life sciences more than ever before - from leading the latest genomics projects to the use of AI technologies in drug discovery, there has never been a better time to discuss Britain's great life sciences future.

Over 180 delegates who are involved with pharma attended the 11th Pharmaceutical Industry Network Group (PING) Conference at the end of 2020, held in conjunction with Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership and Eventum Partners. One of the key messages which came out of the day was the importance of collaborations in the pharma and life science sector, and why the industry is calling to academia to keep the lines of communication open and come together for key projects.

Crucial Collaborations

Collaborations in pharma are nothing new. However, their growing importance has developed significantly over the past few years, particularly as the patent cliff loomed before 'Big Pharma' and the traditional walls of secrecy and competitiveness came down to be replaced with open doors leading to increased knowledge sharing and risk distribution. An understanding slowly began to develop between potential collaborators that they are stronger together than apart (with the necessary caveats, of course).

Oxford University and AstraZeneca Collaboration

A shining example is the development of the Oxford University - AstraZeneca (AZ) coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine. Oxford had the technology and AZ had the deep pockets, expertise, contacts and resources to help push this vaccine from an academic project into a viable, global vaccine programme and at great speed. This super-collaboration combined with regulatory support and Government funding meant a pharma programme, which usually would have taken over 10 years to yield viable fruit, produced an authorised vaccine in less than 12 months. A remarkable achievement and one which has set the bar for future research projects.

However, the key message here is not the vaccine itself, but how important the underlying research at Oxford was to this vaccine programme and how the industry stepped up to support this programme - a collaboration that could potentially save millions of lives on a global scale.

Conference Collaborations

The PING Conference 2020 highlighted many exciting events from the year, as well as the future ahead, such as the launch of NHS England's Genomic Medicine Service, future opportunities for cell and gene therapies, more efficient use of data to improve drug discovery and personalised medicine and strong industry collaboration and investment opportunities.

In particular, we heard from Dr Joanne Hackett, Chair at Pexxi, who emphasised the need for the 'triple ABC helix' - academia, business and community. She mentioned the high level of investment and collaboration in genomics globally, with about 190 public and private initiatives embedded into the healthcare system and how the UK is at the forefront in ground-breaking diagnosis, prevention and R&D. Joanne highlighted that "the past six months has shown us the value of collaborative working and the linkage of data. I predict greater emphasis on value-based care."

As the UK seeks to lead the genomics revolution and push forward the strategic goals of the Life Science Industrial Strategy, the invitation from both the keynote speakers such as Parker Moss, Chief Commercial and Partnership Officer at Genomics England Limited (GEL) and Matthew Durdy from the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult was for academia and industry to use their resources, join with them and come together to progress innovative technologies for a more patient-centric future. There is both an appetite and willingness to share resources, support research and get technology to market sooner rather than later. A powerful combination indeed.

There can be little doubt that if the NHS is to continue to lead the world in the implementation and delivery of genomic medicine at national scale, it needs to benefit from advancements in technology and research. GEL hopes to continue to help in this regard through its research offer with the implementation of cutting edge research tools, a new cloud-based platform for more powerful genomic analysis and supporting clinical studies and trials. Part of this programme relies on close collaborations with pharma to accelerate research and translate it into improved healthcare outcomes for patients globally. The importance of collaborations therefore continues and is fundamental to the UK continuing to hold its place as a world leader and support our NHS.

Combined Collaborations

It is also important to consider the international element to collaborations and the importance of sharing and improving best practice across the sector on a global scale. Whilst national collaborations are important, the sector is increasingly global and there is a determination, even for the smallest of early-stage companies, to look at markets outside of the UK. This will be even more fundamental as the UK carves itself a stand-alone role outside of the existing European framework (but whilst endeavouring to remain a partner within it as well) -  a tricky situation.

However, this is no pipe dream. The UK has shown itself to be attractive to international companies, including through international tenants establishing themselves at world-leading institutions such as the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult and the continuation in acquisitions of UK companies, such as the planned US$1.5bn acquisition of Kymab by Sanofi. Therefore, we should very much be 'thinking big' in the UK when it comes to collaborations.

Curious Collaborations

Technology in pharma is changing as we see a shift towards a more software-focused future, including the use of AI and automation to streamline and expediate research and treatment, including those of a more personalised nature. This development of the technology we use in pharma, away from the more traditional 'pill' model, means collaborations also take on a new structure.

For example, we see innovative new forms of collaboration models such as traditional pharma companies collaborating with software companies, such as Apple, to bring in new forms of health tech and early stage companies as they seek to bring software into conventional programmes. This may include innovative software in clinical trials for patient and trial management, including recruitment and giving patients/people a sense of control of their health and treatment journey. The future looks bright as patients are empowered to take a leading role in their healthcare management and treatment pathway.

Many of the speakers at the PING Conference 2020 made particular reference to this topic, such as My Personal Therapeutics' CEO Laura Towart, mentioning how machine learning, feedback, data and collaboration are key in creating breakthroughs in AI, therefore improving quality of life. Laura concluded that "it is all about prevention rather than cure." This message was backed by Professor Jackie Hunter CBE at Benevolent AI who spoke about the AI revolution in drug discovery and how it is all about the 3Ps, "platform, people and portfolio" and "uniting advanced AI tools with its vast integrated knowledge graph in order to empower scientists, both in-house and through pharma collaborations, to discover more efficacious medicines faster."

We also heard how biopharma is forging links across the value chain by reducing clinical trial length and having clearer targeting, from Deloitte's Head of Centre for Health Solutions, Karen Taylor and Global Life Sciences Consulting Leader, John Haughey. Karen added how this had been seen in helping to reduce the time to discover coronavirus vaccines.

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Collaboration Challenges

Whilst the importance and future use of collaborations in pharma is fundamental to keeping the UK at the forefront of leading forms of innovative research such as genomics and AI, the challenges associated with collaborations continues. There are inevitably those difficult decisions as to funding, intellectual property, publication and the sharing of data. The 'look' and 'feel' of a collaboration can very often steer how the collaboration is structured and how the parties want to negotiate. This focus may be on the establishment of the collaboration itself, as well as the ultimate relationship once the project has been given the green light. There can also be a divide between the scientists and clinicians who want to start the collaboration straight away and the business or commercial functions which want the scope of the collaboration pinned down first.

The UK has an excellent starting foundation through leading academic institutions, a skilled and knowledgeable workforce, an appetite for exploration and innovation and a promise of funding to feed the fire that burns in our academics, scientists and clinicians to extend and save the lives of patients (or stop them becoming patients at all!).

There are many questions unanswered. For example, where will this funding come from? Will it come in time to save and establish the projects which could bear fruit? Can more collaborations help to reduce this funding gap and keep our academic institutions, accelerators and incubators as the powerhouses of British innovation in the pharma and life sciences sector?

And what of failure? We often focus on the success of collaborations and the merits of establishing collaborations valued by their output. However, scientists need to fail and need to be given a safe space and supportive environment in which to do this. The majority of innovative drug and device programmes do not get to Phase III and billions of pounds is needed to bring a new device or drug to market. The importance of ensuring a safe environment to experiment and be creative is, however, the only environment which will bear fruit. Collaborations need to understand this and accept that whilst the hope is strong, there is no shame in failure and the value of the collaboration is not just about output but relationships. The scientist that fails today, could be the innovator of tomorrow. Collaborations need to understand this and embrace the unpredictable. We have seen that it can be done. But will the sector and its collaborators open their arms to our academics, our explorers of the unknown and put precious funds into the unknown?

Collaboration Conclusions - What Next?

2020 was a terrible year in so many ways, but a good year for collaborations - both the usual and the unusual. Out of adversity, we saw the authorisation of innovative vaccines through super collaborations between 'Big Pharma' and academia supported by the Government and the regulator.  We also saw the car manufacturer, Ford, repurpose its manufacturing facilities to make much-needed PPE and respirators. Academia showed how it is so much more than just a teaching facility and how fundamental the research of its academics and scientists is in reacting to global change and the needs of patients across the world. Industry showed how it is not just about profit as this was secondary to what it achieved through collaboration with others to save lives fast. The collaboration between UCL and Mercedes-AMG HPP on the development and release of the UCL-Ventura breathing aid design to manufacturers at no cost under a research licence was a fantastic example of this in the global fight against coronavirus - an engine manufacturer and a university designing a medical device in response to a pandemic. Amazing stuff.

It will be interesting to see what 2021 has to offer in order to keep the life sciences light shining bright for the UK as we forge a new future outside of the EU and focus on innovation, individuality and collaboration for patients and people alike. 

At the 2021 PING Conference, we will be continuing to look at areas where the UK is taking a lead in collaboration within pharma circles.  If you would be interested in hearing more about these issues and being invited to attend the PING Conference, please contact a member of our Pharmaceuticals and Life Sciences team on, or complete the form below.

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