Since the turn of the millennium, the Genesis conference has become one of the highlights of the UK biotech and pharmaceutical industry calendar. It is held in central London every December, always coveres the full range of these industries, covering the basic science behind technological breakthroughs as well as the commercial landscape for developing them. The format has evolved as the sector develops, and now features a mixture of plenary talks and parallel sessions with plenty of time for discussion and debate.
The 2015 Genesis meeting, which was the fifteenth, was held at the prestigious QEII Centre in Westminster on December 10. The conference strapline of ‘Taking Bio-Innovation to a Global Market’ was reflected in different ways in each of four parallel streams that ran through the conference, as well as in the well-attended and interesting plenary sessions. These covered deal structures; empowering technologies; nurturing the innovation pipeline; and international growth. As an academic bio-scientist as well as a writer, I chose to follow ‘Strand B’, empowering technologies, throughout the day and this blog post will reflect on what I learned there.
The conference opened with an introduction from Harriet Fear, CEO of One Nucleus that led into the first plenary session. Despite an early start, even this first plenary was extremely well attended: at one point there was standing room only in the largest room in the conference suite. It included short talks on the state of the industry by Richard Mason from Johnson & Johnson Innovation and Mike Ward, Global Director of Content at strategic analysis company SCRIP Intelligence, and a panel debate about the role of technology transfer funds. 2015 had been a year of mixed success in pharmaceuticals, in particular: despite a near record number of FDA approvals of novel drugs, eight of the top 10 global pharma companies were struggling to fill their pipelines. Ward’s talk, in which he summed up the winners and losers in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries in 2015, was particularly interesting. His list of 2015’s winners included rare disease company Alexion Pharmaceuticals, developer of the world’s most expensive drug, and ‘cancer patients’ in general (provided that their insurers or healthcare providers can afford the most innovative new medicines). Losers included Martin Shkreli of Turing Pharmaceuticals, who became the ‘most unpopular man in America’ when the price of his company’s anti-parasitic drug, Daraprim, from $13 to $750 per tablet.
Each parallel strand included three panel discussions with linked themes. In the ‘empowering technologies’ stream, those themes were data-driven discovery with ‘omics technologies; the future of immuno-oncology; and new antibiotics and anti-cancer agents. The format differed between sessions, but all included a long time for discussion, and all the sessions I attended had lively discussions with a wide range of opinions voiced.
The ‘omics session was chaired by Abel Utreta-Vidal from Eagle Genomics, based on the Babraham Research Park near Cambridge, UK. He described the rapid advance of human genome sequencing from the first draft ‘reference genome’ in 2000 to ‘population scale’ genomics with, potentially, hundreds of thousands of sequenced genomes. However, today’s bottle-neck is in the analysis of all that sequence data. Integration of data sources across company and country boundaries will be essential if we are to take full advantage of these ever richer genomic data resources. Rachael Ritchie from Genome British Columbia, a not-for-profit research organisation that aims to develop genomics technologies for clinical applications; Tom Weaver from Congenica Ltd and Michael Barnes from the not-for-profit Farr Institute in London gave short presentations, each focusing on a different aspect of the computational, data and analytical infrastructure that will be necessary if the ‘genomics revolution’ is to lead to significant clinical benefit. Several contributors picked up on the leading part that the UK is playing in this industry, thanks to strong collaborations between government, academia and industry and the generous funding awarded to Genomics England.
The second enabling technologies session, on immune-oncology, was chaired by Robert Wilkinson from MedImmune, the biologics arm of pharma giant AstraZeneca. He explained that immuno-oncology – or the development of drugs that target a patient’s immune system and boost its natural ability to respond to cancer cells – is one of the fastest growing areas of cancer drug discovery, with dozens of promising molecules now being tested in hundreds of clinical trials. The rest of the session took the form of a discussion led by Wilkinson and by three panellists, all representing companies involved in developing immune-oncology agents: Tom Lillie of Amgen, Roberto Pierini of APCure, a French company developing therapeutic vaccines, and Namir Hassan from Immunocore. This company, based in Oxfordshire, has developed novel molecules called ImmTACs that bind to both cancer cells and T cells, thus re-directing the T cells to attack the cancer cells. The wide-ranging discussion focused on the need for more specific and less toxic immunotherapies for many cancer types, the value of current pre-clinical models and some of the current scientific and clinical challenges involved.
The pharmaceutical industry in 2015 does, indeed, have many challenges, but there is no shortage of potential drugs. There are almost too many molecules in pre-clinical development and early trials; selecting the best candidates and taking them into the clinic is proving more problematical, not least because of funding difficulties. The third panel session in the ‘emerging technologies’ strand discussed some of these issues, focusing on two important therapeutic areas: cancer and infectious disease. Session chair Flic Gabbay from TranScrip Partners introduced the topic before handing over to her panel. Nicola Thompson, formerly of Roche but now talking in a personal capacity, discussed the problem of funding innovation in infectious disease, until very recently regarded as the ‘poor relation’ of pharmaceutical research. Now, with the Ebola crisis and the threat of antibiotic resistance in the forefront of people’s minds, there is renewed interest in the topic – even by industry – but funding difficulties remain. The EU Innovative Medicines Initiative ‘New Drugs for Bad Bugs’ programme, which funds large-scale public-private collaborations in this area, is one example of a possible way forward. Renata Crome from Cancer Research UK described CRUK’s collaborative approach to ‘de-risking’ the early drug development stages to ensure that the most promising candidates are taken forward into advanced trials. Finally, Richard Pye from Oxford-based Summit Therapeutics compared his company’s strategy for developing a novel treatment for Clostridium difficile treatment with a parallel program to develop disease-modifying therapies for Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
This short post can only give a partial view of a very rich conference programme that would have had plenty to offer anyone with an interest in the pharma and biotech industries. Other accounts will doubtless be appearing elsewhere, and I, for one, have already put the date of the sixteenth Genesis conference – 1 December 2016 – in my diary.
Written By Clare Sansom, Freelance consultant and science writer
The One Nucleus blog is written by individuals and is not necessarily a reflection of the views held by One Nucleus.