Interview conducted by April Cashin-Garbutt, MA (Cantab)
Please can you give an overview of the current biomedical innovation landscape in the UK?
The biomedical research base is one of the UK's strengths; over 1500 companies in the Pharmaceuticals and biotechnology area are established in the UK employing over 70,000.
If you look at the medical devices and medical technology, then there’s more than 80,000 people employed there in over 3200 companies. Collectively the UK companies generate over £50bn in turnover.
Also, within the UK, you've got some world class universities. Four of the top ten universities are here in the UK and there's a sizable investment in the medical research space.
The Medical Research Council and the National Institute for Health Research provide funds of about £1.7 billion for medical and health research. If you look at the biomedical research landscape itself, we've got real strengths in the UK.
How has this changed over the last decade?
Over the last decade, there have been real changes in the pharmaceutical industry. The large pharmaceutical companies used to be completely vertically integrated. They'd cover everything from the early discovery phase, where they would be looking for new potential drugs, all the way to the development phase and getting those products to market.
What we've seen over the last ten years is that pharmaceutical companies, particularly the large ones, have been either downsizing some of their research activities or looking to do things differently because they've recognized the fact that they can't generate all their ideas in-house.
One of my colleagues describes this as a disintermediation of an industry. It's breaking up into smaller chunks and the UK has been quite a good place for smaller companies that either supply the ideas or supply the technology for the pharmaceutical companies.
That means we are seeing a much broader landscape of companies, where companies are not developing the actual pharmaceutical product itself, but, are helping to address particular challenges with the development journey and getting a new product to market.
How is the relation between the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries changing?
Fifteen years ago, the biotechnology industry was seen as a different sector to the pharmaceutical industry. The pharmaceutical companies were looking at small molecule drugs, while biotechnology and the use of proteins and antibodies was seen as a different beast.
I think there's been a convergence in that space and all the large pharmaceutical companies have biological drugs as well as non-biological, small molecule, chemical drugs. The industry now describes itself as the bio-pharmaceutical industry.
I think there’s been recognition of the fact that biological drugs are just part of the landscape. I think there's also an interesting interplay between the smaller companies and the large companies now, where the smaller companies are doing a lot of the high risk research in particular areas and once an idea has become mature enough, the large pharmaceutical companies license or buy that product. They then use their global strength in terms of being able to market that drug to get it onto the market and sold all around the world.
How important is it to support biomedical innovation in the UK?
It is one of our key strengths here in the UK, from an industrial perspective, but also from a basic research perspective as well. What we've recognized is that the changes in the market dynamics with regards to how large pharmaceutical companies are operating has meant that we're seeing a change in the supply chain and a change in the nature of the companies that are out there.
The requirements for supporting innovation in this space, is driven by understanding the market dynamics and how to identify new opportunities. Collaboration between different players is key, so how do you develop those ideas in a collaborative way and move them forward?
I think it's also recognizing the fact that new medicines coming to the market now and in the future are going to be very different to what we've seen historically.
It's partly driven by the fact that they're quite complicated biological drugs, but also the fact that the healthcare providers, the NHS in the UK and health insurers in the US, are really starting to come across issues in terms of how to deliver healthcare in the future.
The current models of delivering healthcare are unsustainable and they're now looking at new, affordable ways of being able to deliver it. That's going to drive a lot of changes with regard to how biomedical research is undertaken, as well as what those products are and how they get to market.
Do you think biomedical innovation will lead to cost savings for the NHS?
It will lead to better, more efficient and more effective delivery of healthcare. In that respect, it's not just about cost savings and making the NHS cheaper to run; it's going to be about how to use the resources that the NHS has more efficiently and effectively.
The challenge is that the way the NHS operates right now and the demands that are made on it means that they're focusing on those areas where the issues become particularly difficult and the NHS deals worth the most critical of cases.
I think there's going to be a move towards recognizing the fact that the NHS needs to think more long term about how it manages the health of the population here in the UK and how you cannot just treat people when they're ill. People need to be managed before they get ill as well.
I think the opportunities are not just in developing new treatments to get better outcomes, instead of just providing symptomatic relief for patients – you’re actually looking at cures.
It is also about looking at how to intervene at the right time, in a way that allows people to get the right, appropriate treatment and not receive it in a way that will mean they get into this crisis situation, at which point the treatment will get very expensive.
Please can you give a brief overview of the 3 biomedical catapult centers in the UK? What stages are they at?
We've got three catapult centers. The first one is the Cell Therapy Catapult and that was established in 2012. It came off the back of a range of activities that started with the funding of basic biomedical research in the area of stem cells.
It's a recognition of the fact that the UK has got key strengths here. We're starting to see how these products are being potentially used to either treat blindness, cartilage damage or cancer.
The Cell Therapy Catapult is there to help support and grow a UK industry and its focus is on identifying how to take this very early stage therapeutic intervention, which may work at a laboratory scale in scientific research, and apply it as a treatment that is available to the masses and at a cost that's also affordable.
They're looking to tackle not just the development challenges in terms of proving that these products work, but also how to manufacture them at a price that is affordable.
The second Catapult, which has been established in the last year is in the area of Precision Medicine and this one is very much focused around how to get the right treatment to the right patient at the right time.
It’s a recognition of the fact that not all treatments work for all people. In some cases, some of the blood pressure drugs, for example, might only work for between 30% and 50% percent of the patients they're prescribed to.
The purpose of the Precision Medicine Catapult is to find ways of targeting patients and which drugs will work for them and for their particular conditions. That means gaining a better understanding of the patient, both from the physiological perspective and in terms of the underlying biology of their disease. That's where you'd potentially look at using genome sequencing or other ways of analyzing that person and the disease that they have.
For example, diabetes is not one disease, it’s multiple different diseases and with type 2 diabetes, there are three or four sub-categories that people are beginning to understand. How do you treat each category? What you would do is use different treatments for those different categories of diabetes because it's more appropriate to treat them in that way.
With the Precision Medicine Catapult, the focus is not on development of the treatment alone, but how to identify those patients and what diagnostic test you might use in order to segment them into various populations. Then you need to think about how to use the data that's generated to help identify what is the best treatment for that particular patient.
The Precision Medicine Catapult is going to have a central location in Cambridge, but they are going to be working with local centers of excellence in Manchester, Glasgow, Belfast, Oxford, Cardiff and Leeds. They recognize the fact that what they're trying to do is very much centered on clinical practice and the best place to work on that is actually in the hospital settings, in those local areas.
Then there's the third one which is the Medicines Technologies Catapult, which is focused around pre-clinical technology to help support the development of medicines in the future. As I said earlier, what you're seeing is large pharmaceutical companies that are breaking up their operations and they're covering particular elements of that development pathway, from early discovery to getting the product to market.
In the UK, we've developed quite a healthy base of companies that do a lot of contract research work for the pharmaceutical companies. Those contract research companies will be doing either safety testing or efficiency testing on these early-stage products.
What we want to do with the new Catapult is think about what the next generation of these pre-clinical tests will be, that will allow the industry to make much more informed decisions about which potential drugs will actually make it through the safety and regulatory hurdles and get the products to market and to patients.
The cost associated with developing a new drug is along the lines of $1 to 1.5 billion and a sizable chunk of the investment that's required to get new products to market is actually spent on trying to find out whether that product is safe and effective. Pre-clinical technology is about being able to try and filter out those products that might be potentially harmful to a patient, at an early-stage.
We recognize, and the industry itself recognizes, the fact that it’s not as productive as it could be in being able to get new products to market. They’ve got a productivity challenge in terms of trying to reduce the cost of development and improve their ability to develop these products.
Having these technologies in the early stages of development is a real opportunity for them to be able to accelerate their product to market. The sort of thing that the new Catapult will be looking at, will be new models to screen potential drugs in in-vitro models. Stem cells could be used as potential treatments, but they can actually also be used as a potential model for how a drug might operate.
There’s a real opportunity here. If we think about five years from now, what are the sorts of tests that would be really valuable to the industry in terms of improving their productivity and how do we develop those based on the science base that we've got here? Also, how do we get the small companies that are developing these early-stage tests to really pushing their projects and products forward and accelerating growth?
What types of support do the centers offer and how does this fit with the main aims of the Catapult program?
Catapults provide access to expertise and infrastructure and that’s their core capability. Sometimes, companies struggle with the need to buy a new piece of equipment or understanding how new technologies could support their efforts. It is quite a big risk in terms of capital for them to go out and buy something.
They may also lack the expertise and in-house know-how about how they might go about doing something. Catapults are learning organizations that provide access to people who have expertise and will have worked on these sorts of projects over a number of years. These people will have built a knowledge base and will understand what works and what doesn't. This expertise base is really an important element of Catapults.
Also, the Catapults will be developing projects in-house themselves and in partnership with other companies. To execute those projects, they will have equipment and expertise in terms of how to drive those projects and interpret the results that come out at the other end.
It provides a real opportunity for companies to come along and try out something. If they don't want to make an investment themselves, they can still work in partnership with the Catapult, look at the technology, see how it works for them and then de-risk the proposition. They might then go ahead and make a deeper investment.
We're essentially trying to reduce the cost of capital for people in companies, and then they can think about how they invest in research and development in the future. The Catapults provide a way of being able to do that.
How are the catapults funded?
We fund them under a core funding model. The typical model for Catapult funding is approximately ten million pounds of core-funding a year for a period of five years. That helps to pay for the core infrastructure, the core equipment and the core people that will be working within that.
Then, the Catapult will be expected to develop some in-house projects and also develop relationships with the industry. In those relationships with the industry, the Catapult might then apply to other funders to leverage the capabilities that they have and help those companies get funding as well.
There might also be a direct contracted funding arrangement between the companies and the catapult, to deliver on a particular project.
What have you learnt from the Cell Therapy Catapult and how will this influence the Medicines Technologies and Precision Medicine catapults?
I think what we've learned through our work with the Catapults is that you need to have a broad portfolio of projects and core projects within these. These Catapults are new entities and what you've got to do when establishing them is build up technical know-how and build the team to be able to operate the Catapults. A Catapult and the expertise involved don't just appear overnight; it takes work on projects to develop the credibility of the team and to develop the credentials of the Catapult.
We've also learned that by having a broad portfolio of activity that address key commercial barriers. Broad platform technology projects allow companies to then engage with their specific projects and builds the knowledge not just in individual companies but the sector as a whole. That is very powerful for the companies but also engages a broader stakeholder base such as regulators, for example.
Since the Catapults are independent, they’re able to have a much more meaningful dialogue with the regulators and those engaged with reimbursement.
That kind of knowledge and know-how is captured within the Catapult and by building these competencies and capabilities, you create a really powerful knowledge base that industry can tap into. That saves industry the time and effort of how to learn all this themselves and having to reinvent the wheel over and over.
The Catapults are there to help share that knowledge and really build the capabilities of the UK industry.
Can you give some examples of success?
Some of the things that the Cell Therapy Catapult has been involved with have been along the lines of helping support companies that are looking to establish their European footprint.
Companies such as Tokyo Electron, for example, a Japanese electronics company that was looking at how they might be able to translate their competencies in manufacturing silicon chips into manufacturing stem cells and stem cell products.
When they were looking around at where they might want to establish their European footprint, they actually came to the UK, partly driven by the fact that the Cell Therapy Catapult was here to help them establish their capability and navigate their way through.
Tokyo Electron is one example of how the Cell Therapy Catapult has attracted companies here into the UK and been able to help them establish an investment in the UK as well.
Another example is a company called Videregen. That is a company looking to take forward the idea of replacement organs. They're looking at tissue engineered replacement trachea and replacement esophagus.
Around seven years ago surgeons performed a trachea transplant for a person. They harvested the trachea, removed all of the cells and put new cells into it that were taken from the receiving patient. They then transplanted that into the patient.
What Videregen is doing is taking that one-off process and making it industrially relevant. The company is turning that ‘one-off’ procedure into something that becomes a real business proposition. They have been able to attract grant funding with the Cell Therapy Catapult in order to take the idea forward, but they’ve also had follow-on investment from private investors, to help them grow the company.
Different companies have different requirements and different needs. Some of them are large companies that have a particular technical challenge that they want to have tackled. Some of them are at the very early stage; companies that are not just looking at trying to tackle the technical problems but also how to generate enough intellectual property to really accelerate their products to market. The Catapults have roles to play, with both SMEs and large companies.
How much coordination will there be between the 3 biomedical catapults?
We are the core funder of all three Catapults. We're here to work with them in order to make sure that they are coordinated. Because the three different Catapults operate in distinctly different but complementary areas, they understand their role and they understand their remit. However, there are opportunities for the Catapults to work together as much of the newer products will need multidisciplinary expertise which resides across the different centers.
So, we've identified opportunities where the Cell Therapy Catapult and Precision Medicine Catapult will be able to work together on joint projects. They're bringing their competencies from their different areas and applying it in a multi-disciplinary, cross-sectional approach.
That's something that we really look out for; how the Catapults can work together in order to tackle these problems that no one individual Catapult would be able to tackle.
Another example involves both the Cell Therapy and the Transport Systems Catapults. At first, you assume cell therapy and transport systems are really far apart, but, actually when you look at how to transport live products that have got very short shelf-life from the manufacturing facility to the surgeon’s hands and to the actual patient in the right time and way, that's a logistics issue.
The Cell Therapy Catapult and Transport Systems Catapult have been looking at that. Once you've manufactured a product and you're thinking every second counts and want to make sure that the shelf-life of that product is preserved, how do you then get it out of the manufacturing facility here and ship it over to a clinical trial in Europe? How do you get it into the hands of a surgeon in a timely way that means they can then get it into the patient?
What do you think the future holds for biomedical innovation in the UK and how do the catapults plan to impact this?
I think that there's going to be a fair amount of disruption and change in biomedical research. I think part of that is driven by the fact that the marketplace, the healthcare providers are looking for more and more affordable solutions.
I think that is going to have an effect upstream, with regards to how those products are being developed and that is going to be driving a lot of the decisions around which treatments are going to be used and which treatments aren't.
I think the opportunity for the Catapults will be to understand and provide an insight into what the customers’ needs are going to be and what clinicians are looking for. Then, it’s about how to design and develop your product in a way that allows you to be able to address that market.
We've seen changes in the way that we bank and shop. I think there are opportunities in terms of how we deliver healthcare in a more digitally enabled way and how all the data associated with patients on which treatments work and which treatments don't, is going to affect how companies develop their products for the future. I think that's going to lead to quite sizable changes over the next few years and I think the Catapults are there to help the companies navigate their way through that changing landscape.
Where can readers find more information?
Here are some success stories highlighted on the Catapult website:-
About Zahid Latif
Zahid’s first degree is in Pharmacy and after a year’s pre-registration training at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, he gained membership of the Royal Pharmaceutical Sciences. He went on to study for a PhD in natural product chemistry aimed at the discovery and identification of insecticidal compounds from tropical plants. The PhD was sponsored by ICI and Zahid spent time working at the Jeallott’s Hill Research station in Bracknell.
After graduating Zahid worked for Xenova Discovery, firstly in Slough and later in Aberystwyth looking for novel plant secondary metabolites that could be used as tools for drug discovery. Following a management buy-out of the Aberystwyth labs, Zahid stayed on to work as Operations manager for the newly formed MNLPharma and took responsibility for the delivery of their compound library generation.
After 5 years in Aberystwyth, Zahid moved on to work for Wyeth as a clinical trials supplies pharmacist to gain a broader perspective of the drug development process. Prior to joining Innovate UK (formerly the Technology Strategy Board), Zahid worked for Integrin in Oban, one of the first marine biotech companies in the UK, heading up operations for 2 years. As well as looking after the research portfolio, Zahid was responsible for delivering the company’s algal toxin testing service which also included delivering a regulatory testing service for the Food Standards Agency in Scotland.
Zahid joined Innovate UK in October 2007 as Lead Technologist in Medicines and Healthcare and was promoted to Head of Healthcare in 2010.