What does the future hold? Few places know the answer better than the Institute of Cancer Research in London, the world’s most successful academic center for cancer drug discovery.
The US may be the undisputed global leader in bioscience and biotechnology, but the ICR, on the other side of the Atlantic, is a thriving cancer innovation hub.
The institute is a charity and a postgraduate university, funded through a mix of philanthropy and grants, and works hand-in-glove with the neighboring Royal Marsden, a large National Health Service hospital. It is a prime example of how relatively low-budget academic research can complement the commercial activities of global pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.
That is partly down to its very deep roots. The ICR has been at the forefront of the cancer fight for more than a century: identifying the first carcinogens in smoke and coal tar in the 1930s; contributing to the development of chemotherapy in the 1950s; and helping to discover and develop new tumor-killing platinum drugs in the 1970s. More recently, its scientists have been in the vanguard of personalized or targeted cancer therapies, as well as refining hormone-based treatments and testing drugs that train the immune system to attack tumors. Since 2005 alone, it has discovered 20 drug candidates, 10 of which have progressed into clinical trials.
Now, chief executive Professor Paul Workman has his sights set on tackling the big unresolved problem of cancer: How to stop tumor cells evolving resistance to the arsenal of medicines that humankind has developed against them. Prof. Workman’s team is pushing a novel “Darwinian” approach in drug development, which aims to not just kill cancer cells but also stop their ability to evolve. Modern drugs can work wonders in the short term but tumors all too often develop resistance. Curbing cancer’s evolutionary pathway would deliver long-term control and effective cures, in a similar way that antiretroviral medicines can keep HIV infection at bay.
“It’s not unreasonable to think that in future we ought to be able to manage all cancers, so all patients have relatively long-term survival with treatment side effects that are tolerable,” Prof. Workman said.
He is a biochemist who worked for many years in universities before jumping to “big pharma” with a job at AstraZeneca and then returning to academia. That experience has proven instrumental, allowing him to build a culture at the ICR that bridges different worlds—a tactic that has helped the institute to carve out a special position in the multibillion-dollar drug development chain.
He is now raising philanthropic funding for the culmination of that approach: a new £75 million Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery, bringing together evolutionary scientists with drug discovery researchers and acting as a focal point for public-private partnership.
To some observers, it might seem strange that the world still needs the kind of charity-funded research carried out by the ICR at a time when a wall of private capital is flooding into oncology research. Cancer is, after all, the hottest area of commercial drug research, accounting for a third of the total industry pipeline. The investment rush is buoyed by expectations that current annual oncology drug sales of more than $100 billion will continue to grow rapidly. Yet in practice gaps in the cancer R&D landscape still require a broad academia-based approach.
Despite the billions of dollars that drug companies and venture capitalists are betting on finding new cancer medicines, there are still many cases where investors balk at the risks involved with specific experimental projects.
“It’s a question of where investors’ risk appetite clicks in, and it often doesn’t click in early enough,” Prof. Workman said. “Pharma companies are chasing after drug targets that are very well validated and, therefore, they tend to all jump on the same ones. Even biotech companies have limited ability to go for truly novel concepts because venture capitalists, who provide their funding, have a relatively short time horizon.”
The result is that promising but untested approaches to fighting cancer can fail to navigate the so-called “valley of death” between research and commercially successful innovation. It is a gulf that all nascent technologies face as they move beyond the scope of academic laboratories.
After taking charge of the ICR’s drug discovery in 1997, Professor Workman decided to address the problem by creating a new working model designed to combine elements of commercial and university cultures.
“I could see there was an opportunity for a ‘center of excellence’ model, taking the best elements of academia, biotech and the pharma industry to create something unique in the life sciences ecosystem. That model has been the basis of our success—I think it could also work for other diseases. People have talked to me about doing it in other areas like Alzheimer’s and tropical diseases,” he said.
“We fill a gap in the system because we have the ability to take on exciting new high-risk ideas and push them through.”