Fighting fit

1 October 2014 | By Dan Jellinek

With its strong science base and history of discovery, Britain is well placed to take advantage of opportunities in the life sciences sector – as long as it works towards cross-sector collaboration. By Dan Jellinek

Of the 204 Nobel prizes that have been awarded for physiology or medicine over the years, the UK can be credited with winning 30 – not bad for a small nation.

Prize-winners include the geneticist and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA after whom the new Francis Crick Institute has been named.

The institute, modelled on the US-style interdisciplinary medical science research body, is set to open its doors in a year’s time. Founded by the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK, the Wellcome Trust and London’s University, Imperial and King’s colleges, it will directly support more than 1,000 scientists.

The aim is to offer genomic medicine as routine care for conditions such as cancer

This development is just one of many in the UK’s expanding life sciences sector. It’s a broad field, encompassing human, animal and plant biology; medical science; biochemistry; and bioengineering.

It covers activities ranging from genetic research to the manufacture of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment. And according to UK Trade & Investment, it’s worth more than £50bn to the economy, employing about 165,000 people.

In March, BIS and the Department of Health opened a joint office for life sciences, signalling the sector’s importance.

The office is charged with pulling together policy strands, including research and development tax credits worth about £1bn a year; the Patent Box – a tax incentive for companies profiting from research patents worth a similar amount; and the £52m Science Industry Partnership, which is expected to create more than 7,800 education and skills opportunities over the next two years.

Life sciences is also one of 11 sectors to fall under the government’s industrial strategy, and is the focus of the Cell Therapy Catapult – one of seven new publicly funded accelerator bodies. A further Catapult is imminent for precision medicine: a new field deploying customised treatment for individual patients.

Other moves have centred on making the NHS more accessible for research and better at adopting innovative medicines and technologies.

In August, the prime minister announced a public-private investment package, worth £300m, to decode 100,000 human genomes by 2017. The aim is for the NHS to become the first mainstream health service to offer genomic medicine as part of routine care for conditions such as cancer and genetic diseases.

New frontiers for innovation in life sciences keep on coming, and the UK is well placed to take advantage of the challenges.

But it is not the only nation to spot the potential. Competition will be fierce, both with emerging high-tech economies such as India and with established powerhouses such as the US and Japan – which holds many patents in key areas such as stem cell research.

In austere times, extracting the most from the UK’s strong science base will depend on cross-sector collaboration. Here, we look at four examples where this is already happening.

Bridging the gap for cell therapy

The CTC has a mission that sounds even more dramatic than its name – to boost therapies across the so-called “valley of death” between early-stage development and commercial viability.

Set up by the government in 2012 with an initial £70m of funding over five years, the scheme has more than 90 staff with expertise in clinical development, regulation, manufacturing and market access, who are ready to help with innovations that could benefit the whole industry.

Once we have a bank of pluripotent stem cells, it will shorten innovation time

Few firms, especially SMEs, could otherwise afford access to such resources at early-stage development.

One high-profile example of the Catapult’s collaboration with an SME is its work with Videregen, a company developing a tracheal replacement technology, which involves repopulating an acellular “scaffold” with the patient’s own stem cells and epithelial cells, to avoid rejection.

The firm won £2m from the Technology Strategy Board (TSB – now Innovate UK) to use the CTC to access equipment and expertise.

“It was enough to get them into the first clinical trials, in a rigorous way that will prove it works,” says the CTC’s chief executive, Keith Thompson. “It also brought investor confidence, leading to a recent £1.25m fund-raising round from private industry."

The Catapult has also collaborated with a Scottish SME, Roslin Cells, to develop its clinical-grade induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell bank. iPS cells are produced from adult cells which are “reprogrammed” using growth factors and implanted genes.

The process reverses cell differentiation, making them completely versatile (hence “pluripotent”) – similar to an embryonic stem cell, but easier to source; more able to match pre-defined tissue types; and with fewer ethical barriers to their use.

“Once we have created a bank of these cells that are safe to go into clinical trials, it will shorten the innovation time for academics and companies by two or three years,” says Thompson.

“The Catapults are not a quick fix – they are expected to become a key part of the UK innovation landscape, to bridge the gap between academic invention and industrial use, because there have been many examples over the years of products “invented in the UK, commercialised somewhere else”.

“We want to facilitate SMEs, in particular, to be able to innovate, take risks and push products forward, crossing that ‘valley of death’,” he says.

But it’s by no means just the SMEs that have benefited. The CTC is also supporting global medical technology business Smith & Nephew, with regulatory requirements for the late-stage clinical development and market approval of a wound spray that facilitates healing. It also has an agreement in place with GlaxoSmithKline to explore joint working on cell therapies, as as well partnerships with several UK universities.

A route across the body’s barriers

Just as IT systems or flatpack furniture can be modular, the human body has its sections and they too can pose problems for pharmaceutical designers. So how can a therapy reach the part we want to treat, if, for example, it has been swallowed as a pill?

This approach offers more effective pain relief than opiods, with fewer side-effects

“Our bodies consist of compartments that are separated from each other by biological barriers,” says Andreas Schätzlein, chief executive of bioscience pioneer Nanomerics, a specialist in drug delivery systems spun off from University College London (UCL).

“These include the blood-brain barrier, which prevents many molecules entering the brain from the bloodstream, and hence can block substances ingested as pills from treating brain conditions such as tumours and dementia.”

To overcome this and similar internal barriers, Nanomerics has developed “molecular envelope technology” (MET), which uses a biocompatible polymer to wrap around drug molecules. This envelope can be used to carry peptide (amino-acid based) drugs across barriers, because the body no longer perceives them as a risk or tries to break them down as food.

The company’s lead product, NM0127, developed with a £1.2m grant from the TSB (now Innovate UK), uses MET to allow a peptide pain suppressant to pass directly into the olfactory nerve once it has been inhaled through the nose.

This approach offers more effective relief than opioids to millions of patients with chronic pain, with potentially fewer side-effects and lower risk of abuse.

It’s thought that the technology could also be used for delivering drugs both orally and through the eye. And earlier this year, £1m of funding to develop the MET systems to deliver antibodies to the brain was won by a consortium formed by Nanomerics, UCL, the University of Exeter and Danish pharmaceutical company H Lundbeck.

The funding comes from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s (EPSRC) healthcare impact partnership scheme.

Support from the EPSRC, and Innovate UK and Wellcome Trust funding, have been “a game-changer” in helping his firm innovate and compete, says Schätzlein.

The pain relief product enters clinical testing next year, with antibody therapies potentially following within five years. “We have been working on commercialising this for quite a while, but seed funding allows you to come up with a much more refined proposition.”

Where life becomes digital

If the life sciences sector is a big deal for the UK, the digital sector is even bigger – estimated to reach about 10 per cent of UK GDP by 2016, according to government estimates. The two intersect in areas such as telehealth and telecare, combining medical science with the power of digital networks.

NHS England is supporting a project to demonstrate the power of this mix: technology enabled care and support (TECS).

A home patient monitoring system to test the project in the field has been built in Surrey by Telehealth Solutions, part of out-of-hours care firm Medvivo Group, together with Surrey County Council; local NHS clinical commissioning groups; and council partners Virgin Care and First Community Health & Care.

Telehealth has developed software and systems to allow people suffering from chronic diseases such as lung disease, heart problems, mental illnesses and pain – all on the rise thanks to an ageing population – to self-manage their conditions at home.

About 2,000 patients nationwide have been issued with a “HomePod”, an off-the-shelf consumer touchscreen tablet or smartphone that works with a range of peripheral devices such as blood pressure meters and pulse oximeters.

A simple interface prompts users to take readings, and displays questions for them to answer before sending the data, encrypted, to a secure server. The system can be multilingual and allows videoconferencing.

At the central support centre, specialist nurses follow established clinical protocols to monitor and respond to the data, including routinely calling patients. “The value is in the clinical triage of the patients’ data and the way in which the clinician actively tries to reinforce the patient’s confidence and make them feel there is someone available who has the time to care,” says Medvivo group chairman John Dyson.

In the longer term, more and more health devices will be standardised and commoditised, offering growing opportunities for services such as TECS to link them together, he says. “It’s possible to foresee cameras and wristbands with the algorithms to provide much of the data in a more simple way.

Other algorithms will be developed that enable better diagnosis and advice to be generated automatically from the mass of data that will be available.

The technology will help many patients and is likely to reduce the cost of care, he says. “We think there are about one million patients who might benefit, and the cost of providing the service would be expected to be no more than 50 per cent of the savings to existing methods of care.”

Unlocking the microbiome

One of the most memorable discoveries in recent scientific history was that the human body may contain up to 10 times more microbial than human cells (by number), living largely in balanced symbiosis with their host.

We think this science has broad applicability, but there is still much to learn

Understanding more about the workings of this “microbiome”, and gaining the ability to manipulate its delicate balances, may turn out to have revolutionary implications for medical science.

A current research collaboration, between medical, pharmaceutical and consumer product giant Johnson & Johnson and Manchester University, is exploring the potential applications of probiotic extracts to the human microbiome for preventing and treating skin, oral and respiratory conditions.

“This is a good example of the types of collaborations in early-stage science between industry and academia that we expect to drive transformational new products,” says Elena Fernandez-Kleinlein, lead for consumer scientific innovation at the Johnson & Johnson innovation centre in London.

“The microbiome is an emerging science that we think has broad applicability across many areas such as skincare, and oral and digestive health, but there is still much to learn. The science is in its early stages, and the regulatory pathway is not yet well defined.”

The company’s provision of funding and lab support signals both the potential value of this field to medical and consumer science and the willingness of the world’s biggest firms to invest in UK life sciences.

Last year, Johnson & Johnson chose London as the location for one of its four new global innovation centres – the others are in Shanghai, Boston and San Francisco.

The London centre will serve as a regional hub for spotting innovations and establishing collaborations such as the Manchester project to invest in, and accelerate, their development.

The hub is supported by regional presence at six UK research campuses and life science clusters in Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Oxford, Manchester and Stevenage, working with local academics and entrepreneurs to develop their own ideas or feed them back to London or the other global centres.