UK drug discovery landscape in fundamental shift towards collaboration and open innovation

Published: 20-Oct-2016

Findings come from a survey of approximately 70 leading organisations in the field, alongside interviews with senior drug discovery experts

Sixty per cent of major pharmaceutical companies have increased investment in outsourced and collaborative drug discovery work in the UK during the last 10 years, whilst simultaneously decreasing the number of in-house drug discovery lab staff, according to a new report published today by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI).

'The Changing UK Drug Discovery Landscape,' produced by consultants TBR and CBSL, is the first evidence base of the new networked model underpinning the early research and development of new medicines, and details a shift towards greater partnership working across the biopharmaceutical sector.

In the pursuit of innovation, the report shows how the traditional pharmaceutical industry business model has evolved during the last decade and highlights how companies now proactively seek opportunities to collaborate with academia, medical research charities, contract research organisations (CROs) and biotech companies to maximise the potential of recent advances in science and technology.

This approach has been central to realising some of the most groundbreaking discoveries of the last 10 years, particularly in the fight against cancer, such as immunotherapies, as well as in the ambition to unlock treatments for rare or degenerative disease, such as Alzheimer's. The success of this strategy has led to large pharmaceutical companies increasingly identifying the need for new in-house drug discovery coordination roles, to lead cross-industry collaboration at a global level.

The current strength of UK academic biosciences is reflected in particularly high levels of collaborative work on target identification and validation in the UK. Understanding the causes and pathways of diseases, and therefore identifying possible targets for new medicines to intervene, is an essential starting point for developing new therapies, and it is therefore encouraging to see the UK's continued strength in this area. Better target identification and validation is crucial in reducing costly late-stage failures of new medicines.

However, the research also indicates that the UK's heritage as a pioneer in drug discovery is potentially under threat. The report evidences that whilst many companies have increased their investment in discovery in the UK, contributing to the £4 billion spent annually on research and development in Britain by the pharmaceutical industry, the country is beginning to lose out proportionally on global drug discovery investment compared with 10 years ago.

Dr Neil Weir, Chair of the ABPI Innovation Board, and Senior Vice President of Discovery Research at UCB Pharma, said: 'This new report presents an important baseline for understanding where the UK drug discovery landscape has come from, and where it is heading in the future. The findings of the report reflecting a dynamic, changing and complex drug discovery landscape that is increasingly moving to a networked model and away from large, fully integrated organisations conducting R&D in isolation.'

It is encouraging that this report appears to highlight a trend towards increases in drug discovery employment in specialist service providers and smaller companies, although this is tempered somewhat by indications that the UK may be losing out relative to wider global investment from large pharma companies. This is something that warrants ongoing analysis and something policy makers should consider when developing the forthcoming industrial strategy to ensure that the UK remains competitive and is able to continue to attract global investment in the coming years,' he added.

Professor Herbie Newell FMedSci, co-chair of the AMS FORUM, said: 'This report provides further evidence of the importance of the biopharmaceutical industry to the health and wealth of the UK. In particular, following a number of company mergers, acquisitions and downsizing in the sector, it shows that biotech, academia and contract research organisations have grown to ensure that the UK remains globally competitive.'

'Today, we are bringing together leading figures from research, industry, policy makers, health charities and research funders to digest these trends, and consider how to enhance drug discovery in the UK in future. This may include maintaining investment in technologies, facilities and training, and continuing to support academia, pharma, biotech and CROs working together – allowing the UK continue to lead in providing patients and healthcare professionals with access to new medicines.'

Dr David Reynolds, Chief Scientific Officer at Alzheimer's Research UK, said: 'Today's report highlights important shifts in the UK drug discovery landscape, showing a welcome move to more open and collaborative approaches to research and development. We're seeing a greater contribution of academic drug discovery and innovative new approaches to catalyse drug discovery efforts, with medical research charities playing an important role in leading such endeavours.'

'Alzheimer's Research UK has experienced a real enthusiasm for engagement and partnership from the biopharmaceutical industry in the formation of our global Dementia Consortium and UK-based Drug Discovery Alliance. It's important to understand these changing trends and take opportunities to ensure the UK remains a powerhouse for the development of new medicines that can transform patients' lives,' he concluded.

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