The landscape for translational research in the UK discussed at ON Helix 2016

13 July 2016| by Ol Anscombe-Cox


ON Helix is an annual conference hosted by One Nucleus at the Wellcome Genome Campus on the outskirts of Cambridge that showcases the excellence of translational science in the UK. Translational science is a multi-faceted discipline that works to nurture the transition of research innovations into tangible patient benefits. The BioStrata team attended this year’s event and the day consisted of unique insights from industry leaders across a plethora of international biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, several interesting debates and panel discussions, and opportunities for networking.

A lesson from across the Atlantic

Following a warm welcome from Harriet Fear, chief executive of One Nucleus, we were introduced to Dr Susan Windham-Bannister for the first keynote speech of ON Helix 2016. Dr Windham-Bannister is an internationally recognized innovations expert who was named as one of the 10 most influential women in biotech in 2013 by the Boston Globe. Dr Windham-Bannister discussed her experiences in being the CEO of the Massachusetts’s Life Science Centre (MLSC), and gave her insights on the government’s role in the investment into high quality science and business.

The initiative oversaw growth in the life science industry within Massachusetts, which far outstripped that of the rest of the economy. The MLSC is implementing $1 billion over a 10-year period which, as mentioned by Jane Osbourne (Site Leader and VP Research and Development at MedImmune) in the closing address of the day, is a comparatively small amount of money but if spent correctly, can go a long way for translational science.

Here is an insight into the panel debates:

1. Looking to the future of testing models

There were ample opportunities for the delegates to interact with speakers as the day went on, and not less so than during the heated panel discussions. A number of debates were scheduled throughout the day, the first question being – Do patients make the best models? Members of the panel discussed whether the future of medical research requires the increased use of patients and volunteers as models for the testing of novel compounds, or whether it lies more on animal, in vitro, or large data-set based models, or if perhaps a mix is required.

Dr Rick Livesey of the Gurdon institute, University of Cambridge, kick-started the discussion by highlighting the shortfalls of animal models in replicating the neurology of the human brain. He stated that there is a need for a model that can sit between the two, which will reduce researchers betting on whether a drug will be toxic to humans during trials. Professor Dominic Wells, from Royal Veterinary College, took a different view. To Wells, animal models are more effective, as they allow for cheap, ethical, and more efficient testing. He argues that the shortfalls observed in modern medical research lies more in poorly planned experiments and a misunderstanding of animal physiology, as opposed to the models themselves.

The panel agreed that perhaps there is in ever-increasing requirement for the combination of both models, and for their shortfalls to be assessed and corrected for. In addition, the production of vast data sets, such as that being produced at sites such as the Wellcome Genome Campus, can help to provide data to fill in the gaps.

PRR_8942.jpg(L-R) - Sir Keith Peters, Emma Sceats, Jon Moore, Rick Livesy, Dominic Wells discussing the first panel topic


2. Technology transfer offices: their role in translational science

The second panel topic was concerned with the role played by University Technology Transfer Offices (TTOs). TTOs are now more commonly used as they allow for a dedicated team to identify the potential commercial interest of research innovations, and strategise ways to leverage them in industry; essentially helping to bridge the gap between the lab and patient care.

Dr Iain Thomas, head of Life Sciences at Cambridge Enterprise, began with his opening address. Dr Thomas said that the role of TTOs is to help the movement of research into the right hands, and that universities should recognize most academics may not have the expertise and/or interest in leveraging research into the commercial environment. He hinted that the real value in TTOs is the creation of a dialogue throughout institutions, in order to help build assets that are of value overseas.

Iqbal Hussain Senior Counsel at Johnson & Johnson Innovation Center, London, added that he feels that TTOs need to become more proactive in order to bring opportunities to academics, rather than it always being a one-way street. Agreeing with Iain Thomas, Hussain commented that both internally with stakeholders and with the academic community, investing time in relationship building in order for both groups to act as educators.

The debate was stirred when Davidson Ateh, CEO of BioMoti, posed his question to the panel. Ateh wanted to know whether it was time to scrap TTOs altogether, replacing them with entrepreneurships simply to advise academics and focus on funding groups – as the current metrics are too focused on financial returns, a concept that can get in the way of innovations.  Hussain reiterated that he believes the current model plays an important role, and that efforts should be made to help improve on the current set up, conceding that more of an entrepreneurial element would be desirable.

3. I don’t know what all the fuss is about!

Perhaps the most heated debate of the day was unsurprisingly the one that was set to discuss the health of the entire translational science community in the UK. Entitled ‘I don’t know what all the fuss is about – funding for translational research is great and doesn’t need to change’, the topic was panelled by two camps, the agree-ers and disagree-ers.

First up was Dr Piers Mahon, Director of Global Alliances at Cancer Comms. To Dr Mahon, translational science needs three things; great science, great people, and a whole load of cash. He argues that the money is not the issue, there is enough of it out there, the issue is the techno-commercial talent. Posing three science and three tech grade questions, he made the point that even at a one-day event choc-full of leaders in translational science, few people could answer his basic tech questions. 

Dr Ian Tomlinson, Chairman of the Apollo Therapeutics Investment Committee was in agreement, saying that the funding exists, but the opportunities do not. He stated that in actual fact, large companies are pumping billions of pounds into the UK, trying to isolate cast-iron early stage programs that deserve to be invested in.

On the disagree panel, Rowan Gardner, CEO of Ozo Innovations Ltd, promised us data. She said that 2015 was a record year for UK investment, where the UK raised $4.8 billion, funding over 400 deals. The money is there, but the point is this falls far short of the US, where $72.3 billion was raised for funding of over 3000 deals. She stated that the behaviours of biopharma investors will help dictate the health of translational science in Europe. 

Dr Keith Powell, Chairman of Cambridge-based biotech company Domainex explained that the UK suffers from a very narrow band of investment, which is why there is yet to be a major biotechnology success story in the UK comparable to overseas. He added that part of the reason was the different impact charities have in the US compared to the UK, where tens of millions of dollars are invested in programs in the US, the number is well within the hundreds of thousands this side of the pond.

It can hardly be surprising given the significance of the subject matter that the debate was heated. While both sides of the panel provided good arguments, the disagree side had the floor. Clearly the ON Helix delegates believe there are some serious milestones to meet if we are to be truly competitive with the US.

PRR_8844.jpgDelegates networking during the lunch break

Brexit: how ejection from the EU will change the landscape of research

At times, the result of the recent EU referendum felt like the elephant in the room. Jokes and references were made with regards to the UK’s sudden ejection from Europe (which applied also to the English national football team). When brought up in discussion, the general consensus was that there is a lot of work to be done in order to preserve the current level of outstanding research carried out in the UK’s life sciences sector.

Professor Sir John Savill, CEO of the Medical Research Council remarked that a great portion of skilled workers within the life science industry benefit from free movement within the EU. He pointed out that for every pound paid into the EU, the UK received £1.06, meaning that not only would the leave campaign have to direct all of the quoted £350 million towards the life science sector and the NHS, but more funding would be needed in order to make leaving beneficial for scientific research.  

Jane Osborn added that although the UK is going through times of change which may be unsettling, there is a lot of ambition and confidence in the outstanding quality of life science research in the UK. As such, the sector needs to concentrate on asking the right questions moving forward, and continue to develop technologies and services that benefit patients.

ON Helix 2016 was a definite success. A unique combination of engaging debates and keynote speeches from industry experts made it an extremely valuable day. Preparations for ON Helix 2017 are already underway, with the date set for 13th July.