Collaboration is a word that’s used a lot in the life sciences industry in Scotland. Academics collaborate with clinicians, clinicians collaborate with businesspeople, and businesspeople collaborate with academics, creating a three-way partnership that underpins much of the work in the sector.
Global pharmaceuticals company AstraZeneca and the University of Glasgow have taken collaboration a step further. In October 2013, they unveiled plans to work together in the area of immunology and inflammation medicine.
The result was the GLAZgo Discovery Centre, which was setup by the Respiratory, Inflammation, Autoimmunity Medicines Unit at AstraZeneca as a fully-embedded unit within the Institute of Infection, Immunity & Inflammation (IIII) at the University of Glasgow. Together, the company and the university are exploring new pathways for immunological disease processes with the ultimate shared goal of creating better medicines for patients.
“I love the agility that the partnership offers us,” says Rose Maciewicz, chief scientist and vice president for respiratory and inflammation strategy at AstraZeneca. “It’s a unit that’s defined in terms of people and not in terms of projects so we have the ability to close something down if it’s not working and open up something if we have a new experiment.
“When we talk about the collaborations of tomorrow then they are going to include that agility. It’s a good model. It’s about having that meeting of minds and having as few boundaries as possible around everything you do. If you have that with like-minded people then it’s much more likely to go swimmingly.
“One of the great things about working here is the attitude of Professor Iain McInnes, the director of the IIII. Not only does Iain share the same long-term ambition with us but he’s also freely opening up his unit to us, like we’re opening up what we do to him and his group.
“We’re all in it for the same reason – to help humanity. It’s just that one of us is coming at it from a very ‘applied’ point-of-view and the other is coming at it in a more ‘open-ended’ way and the two need somewhere to come together.”
The centre was officially launched in October 2014, with its initial projects focusing on research into novel approaches to cell differentiation and migration. Current research areas include asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and rheumatoid arthritis. “As we get new projects coming in, I’m interacting with different people in the university,” says Maciewicz. “I’m a bit of a science junkie and I love the adrenaline rush I get when I talk to someone at the cutting-edge of their field and they’re really passionate about it.”
She points to a recent example in which her team has begun collaborating with an engineer from the University of Glasgow to understand the effect of a drug candidate on human bones. “To me, that’s one of the exciting things – who’s going to be around the next corner that I’m going to talk to,” she adds. “What new idea will they talk about?”
Maciewicz thinks that collaborating with the university has brought a range of benefits for AstraZeneca, including adding value to its projects, opening up avenues of research through ‘blue-sky thinking’, and by stimulating the interactions between staff at her company and students and staff at the university.
“Even with a well-funded place like AstraZeneca, we don’t have all the knowledge and all the ability to do everything,” she explains. “So when you work with something like GLAZgo, which has access to very specific human cells, then we can add value to some of our projects very quickly.
“Because we have a nice collaboration set up, it doesn’t take us long to move from an idea to actually undertaking the work. It’s much shorter than if we had to start that process from scratch. We know where our strengths lie and where our gaps lie, so we can use GLAZgo’s strengths to fill in our gaps.”
Tapping into the expertise in the university has also allowed AstraZeneca to begin conducting small, pilot experiments or ‘blue sky research’ that could lead to drug targets or to a better understanding of disease mechanisms. Either way, coming into contact with university researchers also bring benefits to the company’s staff.
“In industry, you tend to begin thinking very linearly and you know what to expect,” explains Maciewicz. “You have a set of assays that you run and you run them really robustly. There’s creativity involved in setting them up, but after that it’s about turning the handle.
“In academia, it’s almost the opposite end of the spectrum. You come in to do ‘What if?’ experiments. By mixing our staff around a little bit, we try to learn from the best of both worlds and grow from that. It’s about getting our scientists to think a bit more innovatively or creatively.
“We also do quite a bit of training in Glasgow because we have PhD students there. You have to think about where the next generation of scientists come from. By working in collaboration with the university very closely, we get scientists who much earlier really understand the bandwidth of what lies within an industry type of job. We gain much more in the long-term.”
Having PhD students training at the centre has also been one of the highlights for Professor Iain McInnes, Muirhead chair of medicine and director of the IIII. “We have a PhD training programme built into the centre,” he explains. “I’ve been delighted by the willingness of AstraZeneca to let us bring in PhD students. A highlight for me is seeing young people receiving training with both an academic focus and an industrial focus.
“It’s been brilliant to see the exchange of knowledge that has taken place and the enthusiasm that scientists within the university and within the company have expressed in coming together for conversations and sharing ideas and sharing experiments.
“Another highlight is the fact that we have real science being done. We’ve gone from a standing start to actually doing discovery science together in a relatively short period of time. We’ve proven that this model can work and can discover new things. That is clearly very exciting.” As well as the training and the swapping of ideas, McInnes thinks the discovery centre brings very palpable benefits to the university. He highlights the advantages of working with a partner that has such a high international reputation.
“AstraZeneca is world class and we are interested in partnering with organisations with that kind of skillset, ambition and vision,” he says. “As a university, we’re committed to making a difference through our research activity. And, as an academic research group, we’re obviously curious, but we want that curiosity to deliver value.
“With the best will in the world, we’re a university, not a pharmaceutical company, and in my area of expertise many of the innovations that occur come through the creation of new medicines. Other advances – through diagnostic techniques or treatment strategies – do also occur, but it’s new medicines that are fundamentally important to us, and particularly new medicines that are very selective and specifically chosen for individual patients, which we call stratified medicine.
“Working with AstraZeneca gives us the chance to work in partnership with an organisation that’s capable of delivering that final product. It’s exciting to be involved at that kind of level.”
McInnes also echoes Maciewicz’s comments about the importance of working together on basic science, which could lead researchers off in new directions. “The pharmaceutical industry contains high-quality biomedical science,” he says. “There are great minds there and also great resources.
“The partnership, from the university’s point-of-view, allows us to work with those really fantastic scientists who think differently from us and therefore we benefit from that. Also, we clearly benefit from some of the development resources and basic scientific capacity that they have in the company that we may not have.”
In May,  McInnes was presented with the Sir James Black Medal by the Royal Society of Edinburgh. The citation for the award, which is one of the four senior prizes handed out each year by the learned institution, said that McInnes was receiving the honour “for his outstanding contribution to the field of immunology through his work in establishing the GLAZgo Discovery Centre, which aims to create better medicines for patients”.
Singling out the centre in the citation for the medal highlighted the esteem with which the facility is already being held within the scientific community, only two years after being opened. Even though the centre is still in its early stages, it’s already making waves in the academic and industrial communities.
The project has been held up as a case study by both the National Centre for Universities & Business and the Russell Group, the organisation that brings together 24 of the UK’s research-led universities.