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Why we work with industry

Chris Watkins

Chris Watkins

There was a time when the paths of academic and industry researchers rarely crossed. But developing treatments for patients requires a much closer relationship between the two sectors than ever before. Here Chris Watkins, the MRC’s Director of Translational Research and Industry, explains why the MRC is working with companies to accelerate research into the development of treatments.

It’s getting much harder to discover new treatments for disease. Biology is complex, and much of the low-hanging fruit of drug discovery have already been picked. We need to understand more about the biology of human disease if we are to develop new effective and safe treatments. We also need to understand the complexity of disease, trying to work out which patients might respond well to particular drugs, and why some do not.

Companies are the only entities which have the extensive and varied capabilities necessary to make drugs. It is a long, expensive and difficult task, with a low probability of success. However, by bringing together  the strengths of academic researchers — who investigate the underlying biology of diseases — with the drug development, testing and production know-how of pharmaceutical companies, we hope to accelerate the discovery of safer, more effective medicines.

This ‘open innovation’ model means pharmaceutical and other types of companies are working more and more with academic and charity partners to share both the risks and rewards of drug development. However, collaborative working covers much more than just drug development. Most of the partnership projects the MRC supports are looking at increasing our understanding of the mechanisms of human disease, how we can identify markers of disease and its progression, and ways to understand and evaluate the effects of treatments, be they pharmaceutical, surgical, or behavioural.

The MRC funds academic researchers to work with industry in a variety of ways. Under the TSB/MRC Biomedical Catalyst we fund researchers to work with small and medium businesses such as diagnostic and medical technology companies. We also fund researchers at an individual level via schemes such as the MRC Industry Collaboration Agreements or industrial CASE studentships to carry out research projects and placements with companies. Together with the National Institute for Health Research, we also sponsor the development of template agreements to aid collaborative working between academic, industry, and NHS partners, the model Industry Collaborative Research Agreement.

We also develop new ways of working with industry. For example, as part of an award-winning project with the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, we have funded 15 projects in which groups of academic researchers are investigating alternative uses for compounds that are no longer being developed by the company.

We try to engage companies from the very beginning in many of our strategic activities. Our Stratified Medicine Initiative funds research consortia made up of academic, industry, charity and NHS partners interested in a particular disease. For example, one of the recently funded consortia focuses on investigating treatment plans for psoriasis and involves five UK universities, 10 pharmaceutical and diagnostics companies, the Psoriasis Association, and NHS partners. Through this partnership working, we aim to ensure that the research we fund is of clear relevance, leading to benefits for patients more rapidly.

Companies also fund research in MRC centres, such as GlaxoSmithKline’s £2m contribution to a research programme at the MRC-Asthma UK Centre in Allergic Mechanisms of Asthma. GSK was also instrumental to the establishment of Imanova, an imaging science centre which is an alliance between the MRC and three universities.

We know that this is still a relatively new way of working for the MRC, and that some people may be concerned that public money might be being used to increase company profits. We work to make sure that the research we support would not have otherwise taken place and so is an appropriate use of our funding. We play a key role in negotiating how the risks and rewards of joint projects are shared — to us, this kind of open innovation model is about ensuring that everyone involved receives appropriate recognition for their contribution.

We also know that some researchers and clinicians might be less open to working with industry partners due to perceived differences in culture and motivation. But there are many benefits to academic researchers from working with industry: they can get access to the latest equipment, disease models and other research tools, and to expertise that they may not otherwise be able to.

The bottom line is that partnerships between academia and industry are what get treatments into the clinic more quickly — they are partnerships which put patients first.

That’s why the MRC works with industry, regardless of size or sector. And it’s why we’re interested in hearing from companies large and small, national or international, to investigate how we can work together.

Chris Watkins

Watch a video about the new centre on YouTube.

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