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Cancer Research UK Bridges Academia-Industry Gap, Free Of Commercial Risk

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Cancer Research UK is the world’s largest charitable funder of cancer research, and its unique position makes it one of few organizations that can effectively bridge the gap between academia and the drug development industry.

As a charity, Cancer Research UK is funded entirely by donations from the public, which means it’s free of the commercial imperatives of biopharma companies that need to be able to respond to shareholders.

“Not being driven by profits means we can work on agents where there is no prospect of an immediate return. It means we can work on treatments where the science is so new and so fresh that there is commercial risk in investing in it because we don’t know if it’s going to work,” said Nigel Blackburn, director of drug development at Cancer Research UK’s Centre for Drug Development.

The Centre for Drug Development is a part of the charity that works on scientifically promising programs in drug development. Their projects include academic labs that are trying to get their work in drug discovery into a clinic, as well as drugs from industry that have a hard time making it to the clinic due to financial or strategic issues.

The current wave of cancer immunotherapies being developed require long-term research and development programs, which means collaboration between academia, industry and organizations like Cancer Research UK are vital.

Academia is generally the source for the basic science around cancer, how it develops and the targets that should be pursued. Industry comes in later for the actual drug development, backed by tools and funding often not available in academia.

Cancer Research UK bridges these two groups, first by funding the basic science and discovery and then driving early-stage drug development, with the hope that it can find a suitable industry partner to take on the continued development of a drug.

Promising compounds can get stuck in development when they are delayed for either financial or strategic reasons. Cancer Research UK launched the Clinical Development Partnerships initiative to “release the untapped potential in drug development,” said George Tzircotis, the senior licensing manager at the Centre for Drug Development.

“We know that many of these agents are very promising but our partners lack the development capacity to take those forward themselves. Our main aim is to try to bring these agents forward and ensure they’re developed and reach cancer patients as quickly as possible,” Dr. Tzircotis said.

Cancer Research UK will often take over development of drugs that have been put on hold due to strategic reasons. The charity funds preclinical and early clinical development of these stalled drugs, and if the drug advances, the industry partner has the option to license the therapy back for late-stage development.

Cancer Research UK also runs the Combinations Alliance initiative to increase the number of treatment combination studies in the UK. These partnerships pair new anti-cancer drugs in combination with a marketed drug, chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy.

Whether a combination therapy or single agent, Cancer Research UK’s non-profit status means that the organization is driven by patients not profits and can work on therapies where there is no prospect of an immediate return, Blackburn said.

“We have a whole range of therapeutic modalities and that’s one of the most exciting things about working here. We can work on anything and everything as long as the science is good.”

Jacob Angevine