Mike Ward speaks with Dr. Toby Richardson of the Institute of Cancer Research about translating academic research to societal health outcomes. Read more here.
A key component of the healthcare ecosystem is the fundamental research conducted within academic institutes. Indeed, many of the technologies and the products that shape modern medicines and treatments were first conceived in academic labs.
One of the most prolific institutes in this regard is the U.K.-based Institute for Cancer Research (ICR), which, alongside its industrial partners, has been pivotal in the discovery and development of a number of cancer treatments and technologies such as Zytiga, a blockbuster prostate cancer treatment; Lynparza, which has been approved as a treatment for a number of ovarian and breast cancer subtypes; and, in collaboration with Philips, high intensity focused ultrasound, a pioneering technology that uses ultrasound technology to destroy tumors without the need of surgery.
Translating such insights into new products and services that provide a benefit to the wider society is the mission of the ICR’s Business and Innovation Office. To get some insight into how the ICR’s knowledge and technology transfer process works, I’m delighted to be joined by Dr. Toby Richardson. He is the Head of Business Development and Licensing, and also Deputy Director of the Business and Innovation Office at the Institute of Cancer Research. Toby, thanks very much for joining me.
Dr. Toby Richardson:
Good to be speaking to you, Mike. Sorry the title is a bit of a mouthful.
Yeah, it is, but that’s no problem. I mentioned in my introduction that the role of knowledge transfer activities is to translate ICR research into products and services that have the potential to provide societal benefits. I think it might be helpful if you could first describe the ICR’s vision and mission for knowledge transfer and exchange, and give us some insight into the breadth of opportunities that you’re actually dealing with.
Yeah, certainly, Mike. The Institute’s mission is making the discoveries that defeat cancer. That really focuses everything we do at the Institute, whether it’s in research or the work of my team, the business team that manage our collaborative research links with industry. It shapes the contractual terms that we sign up to in an agreement, the policies that we seek to work with and everything that we do, very much at the forefront of our minds.
To take a little bit of a step back to give you an idea of the ICR and how we sit in the ecosystem and the work that we do, the ICR has a very unique relationship with the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, which, together form the largest comprehensive cancer center in Europe. I would say that gives us a very broad range of capabilities to generate a lot of varied and high-quality intellectual property. At the ICR itself, we’ve got about 1,000 researchers working across eight research divisions, everything from cancer therapeutics, to radiotherapy and imaging, genetics and epidemiology, to clinical studies, molecular pathology and breast cancer research. There’s a lot of high quality research generated at the ICR.
And through the nature of our institute, we are an applied institute, it’s not of interest to us so much just to generate information. You’ve got to do something with it, and we’re always aimed at maximizing patient benefit from the research that we do. That can mean my team enabling research at the ICR and then exploiting intellectual property that we’ve generated, obviously through protection of the IP, having a broad contact network to know who to partner with, negotiating contracts and then post deal management.
I suppose the vision of my team is more about the translation of that research and maximizing the patient benefit that we see. The mission that specifically guides us is ensuring that any of the intellectual endeavors, the research output, are appropriately protected and exploited at the ICR and maximize the patient benefit. Also that the researchers are in a position to be able to translate their research, and also then maximizing the income that we can get, so we can feed that funding back into the research that we do.
You asked, what are the opportunities we have at the ICR? The ICR has been around for about 100 years. I suppose some of the key points to mention is that we’re a college of the University of London, and we’re an independent cancer research institute, which means we get our funding from a range of different sources, so that we can just do the best research on whatever funding we’re able to attract.
We’re co-located with the Royal Marsden Hospital that I mentioned, and that enables us to do that true bench to bedside, that I know everybody mentions, but it really is a reality where we are. Over that hundred years, we’ve had a range of different discoveries that have made a huge impact on the lives of cancer patients. That can be identifying smoking as a key driver of lung cancer, DNA damage as the key basis of carcinogenesis and then a range of different genes and drugs that have revolutionized cancer over time. In the global ecosystem as we are today, we’re in the top four cancer research institutes, obviously the big three in the US, but I think we would like to feel that we punch above our weight.
You’ve mentioned Zytiga. Zytiga has been probably the product that we’ve been best known for of late. Zytiga has been given to a lot of cancer research patients, I think it’s about half a million cancer patients, and has managed to basically increase life expectancy by a quarter of a million years, which is just a phenomenal figure. That just plays a key societal impact that we’ve had just in that one particular project.
We do a lot of work in drug discovery, but also in drug development. That was key to the Lynparza collaborative work that you mentioned. We had collaborated with a biotech at the time, and that cued us to show how best to use a PARP inhibitor. That was in a BRCA-deficient background, and obviously led to great success.
We’ve also had many successes in other areas. For example, we’ve done a lot of work in high-precision radiotherapy techniques and software for interpreting MRI images. We’ve got new technology, which is seeking to reduce the amount of time it takes MRI images. Obviously that can be quite a prolonged process at the moment, which can be very difficult for a lot of patients. We’re making a big difference in many, many different areas.
I think the sorts of opportunities that we have today at the ICR reflect our history as well as the current makeup of the organization. We’ve got small molecules for discovery programs, we’ve got biomarker IP that’s been generated to try and identify the best patients for a particular drug. I mentioned cancer vaccines, and also more technology, radiotherapy and imaging techniques. It’s a pretty broad range.
You mentioned that it’s ranked fourth worldwide in cancer research, but also, first in the United Kingdom for top cited research publications, and ranked second in the world for the number of publications cited in patents. With that wealth of intellectual property that you’re generating on a continuous basis, how does your department go about prioritizing which programs, projects or assets are going to get your attention?
Very good question again, Mike. The U.K. government’s most robust assessment of research excellence is something called the REF, Research Excellence Framework. We finished top of the last REF, above more familiar university names, and we finished top of its predecessor, the RAE. I suppose that just reflects a lot of high-quality IP being generated at the ICR.
It is a difficult challenge for us because we don’t have endless amounts of resources to review and exploit the intellectual property that we have. I think our focus is always, what can make the biggest difference to patients? We do our best to prioritize everything because the institute’s research strategy defines the work that we do, and we’ve obviously got a lot of brilliant clinicians and scientists at the ICR who define and set that research strategy.
We want to do all that we can to maximize the benefit to cancer patients of the outputs of that work. However, we do have to prioritize some. For example, if we’re running a clinical trial and there are samples to be analyzed, and you’ve got a patient there and then, that work needs enabling as a priority, and maybe an ongoing discussion can be parked momentarily while you can get on with that. I think we’re really, all the time, trying to weigh what is in the best interest of cancer patients. Like every tech transfer office, we are stretched and there is an awful lot for us to do, and prioritization is a key part of our job every day.
You mentioned the fact that it’s very much applied, and the idea is to go from the bench to the bedside, and you’ve got your collaborations with industrial partners. Could you describe how you go about initiating those discussions. Is it that they come to you, or do you see that you’ve got an asset, and then look and think, who might be the most appropriate partner to help develop this program further?
Dr. Toby Richardson:
It depends on the project and on the assets. A lot of the time our research collaborations are initiated by scientists talking to other scientists at somewhere like AACR or ASCO. They realize that they’ve got aligned research interests and they want to basically collaborate to make more than the sum of the parts. We’ve done that very successfully. We will enable those collaborations.
Obviously we will have licensing opportunities as well, which we will be out there promoting at usual conferences like BIO and BIO Europe on various online platforms to try and attract partners. We also always invite partners to come to us with suggestions for collaborations, because there are things that we might not have thought of, or might not be aware is possible.
We’re happy to take any approach, but I think the key to making things happen on a research level is alignment with the research interests of particular teams at the ICR. If a company comes in with an idea and it fits with the research strategy of a particular team, then we’re all over that, we’re really keen to make that happen as quickly as possible. That doesn’t always happen. I think one of the key jobs that we have is making sure that our research teams are in a good position to be able to translate that research. They are often the ones who are on the coalface meeting other scientists and trying to kick off those collaborations.
What are the major issues? For example, when you’ve identified a potential partner, what are the major challenges in shaping a collaboration, when you go around constructing the deal?
I think it can often be prioritization, because obviously we want to make things happen as quickly as possible, because the faster we make something happen, the faster we can see a benefit to cancer patients. Companies are also stretched, and they’re going to prioritize projects in a different way to how we do. For example, they want to bring in a Phase III asset that’s going to make a big difference to their bottom line, that’s naturally going to get higher prioritization than maybe a very early-stage collaboration.
We do what we can to make sure that we get prioritized as well as we can. We understand though that companies aren’t just going to be wanting to enable something with us. I think that’s also key about the expertise in my team. We’re a very experienced team, so we know what the key drivers are for companies. We’ve got a good feel for what makes it easier for companies to do deals. We’re always seeking to find new ways to do that. So, certainly trying to ease the path for the company, because we understand that they might have more important priorities.
I think also it depends on finding a partner who understands you and your drivers. We’re an academic research institute. Our risk appetite, as you might imagine, isn’t huge. Some partners will understand that and will reflect that in the terms of a contract, some will struggle with that more, and that can then lengthen out the negotiation of a contract. It’s really trying to increase prioritization and trying to help partners understand why we’re asking them for what we’re asking for.
Regarding the length of the time it takes to establish the deal, can you give some sort of sense of how long it actually takes, for example, from ideation to actually signing on the dotted line?
Again, as you might expect, there’s a wide range here. I think we had a really good example, toward the end of last year, we collaborated with a West Coast biotech on a particular drug discovery target, which we both found challenging. We wanted to see if we could crack it together. Instead of trying to go for the big grand collaboration and licensing agreements, we chopped it up into chunks, and said, let’s focus on getting things started, getting reagents swapped and research initiated and let’s see where we go from there. Once we’ve got things up and running, then we can look to build on that and put more complicated structures in place if needed. Actually, that enabled us to get research up and running within a month or two, which is pretty good in our space. I think both research teams are really happy with how that turned out. We had questions to answer and we were able to answer them, some more positively than others, but that’s research, that’s the nature of research.
Can you give us an example of questions that are more difficult to answer?
I suppose I’m thinking in terms of research questions, that the research teams want your collaboration to answer those questions, and sometimes, unfortunately the targets that we pursue, because of the nature of our organization, we are going to pursue those sorts of targets, which, generally companies will want to de-risk, and don’t want to pursue them early on. And that’s going to mean there’s a certain attrition rate. Even if you find out something which means that this particular area of research didn’t get the go ahead, you’ve found that out, and that is actually a positive result. You can pursue your interest in other areas rather than stringing out, trying to make something work when it’s really not going to at this stage.
I’m just wondering also, the ICR, you mentioned its status, and the fact that it gets some support from charities, et cetera. What outreach have you, in the timeline development of these new medicines and technologies from patients? Is there an opportunity or an activity where the voice of the patient is heard and listened to?
Oh, definitely. Because we’ve got a lot of joint appointments between the Marsden and the ICR, a lot of our employees work directly with patients. We are constantly aware of the needs of patients, and that at the end of the day, the patients are our boss. They are the ones that we are trying to serve. They are the key people for us.
We’ve got an excellent communications team at the ICR, who do get involved with policy and practice now as well. We’ve put out various physician statements. We also have a news center that tells people about the commercial activities that we’ve been up to, to try and broaden the reach of the work that we do, and to hopefully help people understand what we’re up to and why.
So, finally coming back to the core mission of translating that ICR research into products and services that are going to benefit society and patients. You mentioned the fact that it raises revenues, which you can fold back or push back into funding more research, but I just wondered, what metrics do you use to measure success for your activities, and particularly that societal impact?
Dr. Toby Richardson:
I suppose the most direct impact is the one that I mentioned with regard to Zytiga, and that it has saved a quarter of a million years of life. And that’s a pretty powerful thing to think about, that obviously there are many families and people out there that it’s had an impact on. When you’re discovering and developing drugs, that’s a more obvious one. Obviously we’ve got success as well in the REF, which I mentioned, and a key bit of the REF is impact. That looks at the societal and economic impact of our work. I don’t believe if we didn’t do well in the measures that they look out for that we could do well in the REF overall.
Companies, at the end of the day, they want to make a difference to patients. Now, for whatever reason, whether it is their shareholders, or whether there are more altruistic reasons, we’ve got a lot of companies wanting to work with us. I think that hopefully suggests that we can make a difference as an organization, and particularly in partnership with industry. We’ve made a lot of differences, a lot of impact on the lives of cancer patients over the last hundred years. A lot of those have been in collaboration with industry, for obvious reasons.
Then I suppose on a more minor level, potentially, is that we are able to attract a lot of grant funding for the work that we do, and people aren’t going to put money into academic research. Grant funders aren’t going to put money into secondary research unless they are seeing it being translated into some tangible benefit for cancer patients. So, I believe there are a number of different metrics whereby you can look at the impact that we’re having, that other people recognize it, and that hopefully we’ll continue to do that for a fair while yet.
As a final question, you mentioned as part of the outreach, you’re going to some of the big industry conferences or going to some of the medical conferences. In the past 18 months of the pandemic, those meetings haven’t taken place in the way that they used to. How has that affected your ability for the outreach, and what recommendations would you have for people who would like to engage with the ICR?
You go along to these conferences and you trot out over and over again, and you really believe in it, but when you’ve done it for the 10th time on the day, I feel sorry for the person on the other side of the table who is probably feeling, oh, he might not be sounding as enthusiastic as he was at 8:00 this morning. It’s really strange not to have done that over this period of time, I think that everyone has just adapted to different ways of doing it. I think it’s been a bit more focused.
We’ve done some online conferences, but I think that when you spend the whole day online, people are quite weary of that. Trying to mix up the channels by which we interact with people has been key. Funny enough, it’s been quite nice speaking to people on the phone, and also contacting people through email and other ways that might be seen as slightly older approaches. I think we’ve just taken a more varied approach and have to focus our efforts on that.
We’ve been incredibly busy over the last 15, 16 months. Obviously working from home has had its challenges, and we’re all looking forward to being able to engage people in person. I’m on the board of the Pharmaceutical Licensing Group, and we are planning events for the autumn, but we’re planning hybrid events now, where you’re going to have the option of people being there in the room or people calling in. It’s going to be interesting to see how these work. I think IT teams across the country are going to be scratching their heads, trying to find solutions to this, to try and give people the same sort of presence, whether they’re calling in remotely or there.
It has been a challenge over the last year, but I think we’ve done pretty well. Our scientists are still maintaining contact with their key companies. They still need to drive the output for their research. We’ve just found other ways of doing it, but I’m dearly looking forward to seeing people again.
Of course, in the past, we would actually have done this interview face-to-face rather than through the medium of Zoom. Toby, as always, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. I think people are going to be really interested in hearing what’s happening with the ICR. Thanks very much for sharing that. I’m sure the audience is going to appreciate it. In closing, I’d like to thank Toby and also like to thank the audience for joining us and for tuning in. Thank you.
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