Cancer charity's creative business ideas attracting industry partners

With an annual research budget of more than £300m ($464m), Cancer Research UK spent about the same on R&D last year as companies like Cephalon and Actelion. Its funds, raised entirely from the public, have helped three products get to market, most notably the brain cancer drug Temodar, financed work on many more and supported huge amounts of academic research – overall a substantial contribution to the advancement of cancer treatment.

The creation of Cancer Research Technology (CRT) nine years ago marked a real push by the charity to make sure the promising discoveries it funds get to patients. Essentially a technology transfer unit, the autonomous division has increasingly been reaching out to industry, setting up research consortia on specific areas and offering to fund trials of promising agents that might otherwise sit on the shelf. These “creative business ideas” are starting to bear fruit, for example a three-year deal with AstraZeneca over cancer metabolism, and chief scientific officer Clive Stanway tells EP Vantagemore should be on the way. Given big pharma’s current embrace of ‘open innovation’, these strategies should increasingly strike a chord with a sector desperate to improve R&D productivity.

Tapping potential

With 140 staff and access to the full portfolio of research funded by Cancer Research UK, CRT can tap huge amounts of intellectual property with the potential to become new cancer treatments. Making sure the charity’s investment pays back, for example through royalties on products that make it to market, is also an important goal.

The division’s running costs are funded by revenue created by its licensing portfolio, although some budget is available from the parent company. Dr Stanway says CRT is profitable although by how much is not disclosed; all profits flow back to Cancer Research UK.

Temodar, Merck & Co’s brain cancer chemotherapy agent, brings in the biggest income stream; the royalty figure is not disclosed but the drug sold around $1bn annually for the US company over the last five years. Patent expiry in 2013 means this income stream is likely to decline in the coming years, which will hopefully be replaced with Zytiga. The prostate cancer drug, launched earlier this year by Johnson & Johnson, is forecast to generate sales of $1.55bn by 2016, according to consensus data from EvaluatePharma.

Both agents were worked on – in the very early stages – by CRT scientists and others in the pipeline will hopefully be revenue generators in the future. For example the charity owns some intellectual property around the MUC1 gene, which is being utilised by a number of companies in cancer vaccines. Most advanced is Stimuvax, being developed by Merck KGaA, with phase III results due early next year in lung cancer.

Spreading the risk

In total, 11 drugs are being tested in man with many more in pre-clinical stages by various commercial partners that, at some stage, were funded by Cancer Research UK.

“What we would like to see is two or three things constantly generating revenues because then you have the risk spread,” Dr Stanway says. “Which is one of the reasons we tried to ramp up the drug discovery efforts, to diversify the drug portfolio that’s generating revenue. Not only because that should mean we’re more successful in getting things to the market and into the clinic, but it will mean that financially things are more diversified.”

Progressing and finding partners for products or research areas emerging from the charity’s discovery labs is one way CRT is trying to achieve this. Two deals were struck last year, with AstraZeneca and Cephalon, to collaborate on researching particular fields. The deal with AstraZeneca focuses on cancer metabolism; over three years the two groups will collaboratively discover drugs that the pharma company will subsequently develop and market.

Funding projects

Another strategy that has proved successful in building the CRT pipeline has been 'Clinical Development Partnerships’, started in 2006. Compounds being developed by industry but sidelined due to lack resources are identified, and CRT offers to fund or part fund further study. While the owner of the drug keeps the intellectual property, CRT owns any data it generates and, if the product is ultimately successful, would benefit through a royalty.

Eight compounds are now enrolled in the scheme, including GlaxoSmithKline’s GSK1070916A, an aurora kinase inhibitor being tested in pancreatic cancer and IMA950, a brain cancer vaccine owned by private German biotech Immatics.

“It’s making sense to a lot of different people, and big companies and small companies have got involved. It’s getting to the point they are seeking us out,” Dr Stanway says.

CRT has also been busy setting up consortia of academic groups with specific specialism, with the goal of finding industry partners which will hopefully turn the expertise and research into drug candidates. Consortia focusing on areas including cancer stem cells, epigenetics and the tumour microenvironment are up and running – AstraZeneca is funding a lipid metabolism consortium and part funding another one working on cellular senescence. Partners for the other areas are being sought; the stem cell consortium in particular is receiving interest, Dr Stanway says.

Appreciative ears

These “creative business ideas”, designed to help turn the charity’s money and research into medicines, have really evolved over the last few years. While CRT was closer to a contract research organisation five years ago, people are now more likely to comment it looks like a biotech, Dr Stanway says. A description that of course is not entirely fitting.

“We don’t have the same issues or philosophy and we’re not about making money. We’re really about trying to get better therapeutics for the diversity of diseases that are cancer,” he says.

“We’ve been really investing in new ways and working with the pharmaceutical industry to develop ideas. We are taking a multi-pronged approach because we realise not everything suits everybody,” he says.

Without the constant worry about when the money will run out, CRT is able to focus intently on the science and innovation. Appreciation that innovation is the key to long-term success is of course widely heard at big pharma companies these days, many of which are desperate to improve R&D productivity.

Helping pharma companies with access to innovation and new inventions certainly chimes with the industry’s recent push towards ‘open innovation’. These efforts by CRT, now more than ever, should fall on appreciative ears.

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