Open innovation as a reality
Chris Watkins, the MRC’s Head of Translational Research, explains why today’s announcement of £7 million funding for 15 research projects awarded through our open innovation collaboration with AstraZeneca is such a significant step, and a signs of things to come.
We’re at an exciting time for medical research. Barriers are coming down, boundaries are blurring, and researchers are coming together more and more to crack important questions.
The term ’open innovation’ is bandied about a lot, but real examples of where it’s worked are only now beginning to emerge. That’s why I’m so enthusiastic about what we’ve announced today — working with AstraZeneca, the MRC has provided UK academic researchers access to 22 well-characterised compounds and the funding to undertake studies which will lead to a deeper understanding of human disease and speed up the development of potential new treatments.
A major focus for the MRC over the past five years has been on research which translates the results of basic science into improved healthcare, products and services. Translational research is a pivotal part of MRC’s strategy and part of my job is to develop ways to make this happen.
There are many scientists, and research funders, who have recognised the potential of getting access to well-characterised small molecules to help research. The challenges are finding out which compounds are available, knowing how useful they might (or might not) be — and getting the funding to use them.
All large pharmaceutical companies have ‘deprioritised’ compounds which have reached various stages of the clinical pipeline, and then not progressed. They may have passed rigorous safety testing, but didn’t act as anticipated during testing or trials. For a number of years, I’ve wanted to launch an initiative which helps academics to access these valuable compounds. When the opportunity finally arose during discussions between the MRC and AstraZeneca in 2011 we both jumped at the possibility. Between us we came up with a solution which we hoped would make things happen.
The AstraZeneca/MRC scheme is the first of its kind. Other than areas already probed by these compounds, scientists were invited to submit applications in any area of research — not limited by the research interests of either the MRC or AstraZeneca. We both wanted to see great science being undertaken, with clear benefit to patients.
And UK academic researchers delivered. Fifteen fantastic projects have been funded, including a University of Bristol project investigating whether a compound originally evaluated for the treatment of prostate cancer could delay, or even reverse, the progression of Alzheimer’s disease; a team at the University of Manchester conducting a small clinical trial of a new treatment for chronic cough using a compound developed to treat heartburn; and scientists at the Royal Veterinary College, University of London hoping to re-purpose a lung disease drug to treat muscular dystrophies.
This is a really smart way of working. It’s the perfect synergy of AstraZeneca compounds, MRC funding and scientists’ innovative thinking. Not only has the initiative funded an array of high-quality projects, it has also fostered a number of partnerships between researchers from academia and industry that will lead to future collaborations across the sector.
We’re already talking to a number of other companies about the possibility of launching similar schemes. And I think there’s a broader opportunity in using shelved compounds to study rare diseases. Ultimately I’d like to see this kind of initiative evolve to become a core part of MRC business, fostering groundbreaking discovery and clinical science.