Earlier this month, some of the worlds’ top movers and shakers met at Churchill College (University of Cambridge) to discuss translational research in the UK. The ON Helix conference was the second of its kind organised by the team at One Nucleus, a membership organisation for international life science and healthcare companies.
This occasion brought out the rock stars of translational research: Sir Mike Rawlins, Sir Tom Blundell, Sir Gregory Winter, and Hermann Hauser. Leaders in each of their respective fields, all had experience in launching successful companies in the bio- and/or information-technology sectors. Sir Mike opened, and expertly chaired the forum, with his view on the key outstanding issues in translational research – namely, directed care, ethics review, and research governance.
A self-professed “Marxist entrepreneur”, Sir Tom Blundell was first to reminisce on his personal experience with translational research. Blundell, a biochemist by training and co-founder of Biofabrika Limited, worked during the cusp of discovery that elucidated the molecular structure of insulin – the hormone central to regulating carbohydrate and fat metabolism.
In the 1980s, Blundell saw the opportunity to use the architecture of insulin for the “structure-based drug design” of small molecules as therapeutics to treat diabetes. Ever hopeful, he approached a large pharmaceutical company, in the first instance, for funding to translate the research to clinically relevant drug targets. Pfizer passed. Alongside two postdoctoral researchers, Blundell performed the proof of principle experiments in his academic lab at the University of Cambridge and acquired funding shortly thereafter.
A short trek from Blundell’s lab at the Department of Biochemistry to the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Sir Gregory Winter had similar sights set on translating his research on humanised antibodies. He faced major obstacles in various guises. Winter lacked the equipment and reagents to clone the human Variable (V) genes. He developed the thermocycler machine and thermostable Taq polymerase in house. Winter had a major US competitor in Strategene. UK industry was hesitant to back him until the technology was established. An unknown market? Under-developed technology? Naysayers aside – fortuitously for Winter (and us), a “fairy-godfather” granted private investment based on a “gentlemen’s agreement’.
Serial entrepreneur and ventral capitalist, Hermann Hauser is not averse to risk nor failure. Of the 100+ he’s had a hand in founding, many failed, but 5 became multibillion-dollar companies. One such company produced DNA sequencing machines that improved performance by 100-fold against incumbent technologies. Hauser indisputably experienced in enterprise, was also generous to offer simple advice. How to deal with conflicts of interests? Declare them and abstain from voting. These and many other pragmatic actions were what prompted the government to commission Hauser to analyse the national Catapult programme among other initiatives.
While these classic success stories are inspirational, it left an obvious question in my mind: can an ambitious and industrious self-starter such as myself do the same in today’s UK translational research climate? We live in the age of intellectual property (IP) law, technology transfer offices (TTOs), and an über-competitive globalised market – forces, to name a few, that were less pervasive when our distinguished panel were navigating the treacherous waters of enterprise.
One contentious, debate-provoking topic that surfaced to the forefront was TTOs. Do TTOs help or hinder commercialisation? Most leading academic institutions operate TTOs for the management of patents, mentoring of spinouts, and provision of seed funding for early stage companies. The real problem with this tripartite “bundling of services” is that, in practice, it may produce an ambiguous situation prone to conflicts of interests when the same individual is at the helm. Blundell was quick to point out that researchers at the University of Cambridge can atypically opt out of the institutionalised TTOs.
Nathan Nagel (CEO of LifeScience Ventures Ltd) had some additional comments after the session, “When working with TTO’s we have found, generally but not always, that they are restricted by internal legacy boundaries on what they are allowed to negotiate on the amount of equity the University is willing to give to an investor. Ipso facto it is not the TTO’s themselves but their board governors which urgently need to give the academics a chance of getting their idea funded as unless it’s attractive for an outside investor the University gets to keep 100% of nothing.”
The most positive outcome of this annual meeting was that everyone seemed to acknowledge the need for the UK to maintain its eminent position and strong presence in the global translational research market. How does the UK stay competitive in line with American competitors? That question, in itself, warrants a conference. Perhaps next year’s offering will address that in part. I look forward to seeing you there.
Wendy Gu is a basic researcher in neuroscience at the University of Cambridge contemplating a career move into translational research. Find her via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Written By Wendy Gu, University of Cambridge
The One Nucleus blog is written by individuals and is not necessarily a reflection of the views held by One Nucleus.