One of Scotland’s major advantages is the size of its life sciences community, which enables businesses to not only collaborate with each other to grow their sales but also to work in partnership with universities and the health service.
Business is often caricatured as being cut-throat, with share traders wearing bowties and red braces yelling “buy, buy, sell, sell” down the phone line and wheeler-dealers dressed in donkey jackets chasing profit, no matter what the cost. Yet a different mind-set is beginning to take hold among companies in Scotland’s thriving life sciences sector.
“We want companies to stop asking ‘How can this benefit me?’ and start asking ‘How can this benefit we?’,” explains David Scott, senior director at Livingston-based Tepnel Pharma Services and industry chair of the Pharma Services Scotland Steering Group. “Businesses need to see each other not as rivals but as potential collaborators.”
The Pharma Services Steering Group – which brings together more than 9,000 scientists and business people working in Scotland’s pharmaceutical services sector – is working on a strategy that aims to grow the sector’s turnover by 9% year-on-year to reach £2.6 billion, with a special focus on exports and international trade.
“There are around 180 organisations in Scotland that are offering services to the pharmaceuticals industry, all the way from research and development through manufacturing and then onto sales and marketing,” says Scott. “But there’s no single company that is offering services at each and every stage of the supply chain.
“By working together, Scottish companies can offer big pharma an end-to-end service. Traditionally, businesses in this sector would either grow organically by learning the skills they needed in order to provide a service or they would acquire other firms in order to gain that expertise.
“Collaboration offers a third option – companies can work with one another to utilise each other’s expertise. It’s not about one company growing at the expense of others and swallowing them up – instead, it’s about growing the size of the overall pie so that everyone gets a bigger slice and together we’re able to offer a joined-up approach for our customers.”
Tepnel was founded in 1992 to exploit technology developed at the University of Manchester Institute of Science & Technology (UMIST). The business was quoted on the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) before being bought by NASDAQ-listed Gen-Probe in 2009 for £93 million. Gen-Probe in turn was taken over by fellow American company Hologic in 2012 in a US$3.8bn (£2.4bn) deal. Tepnel now acts as the outsourcing arm of Hologic’s diagnostics division, offering pharmaceutical services and developing biomarkers that could be used in precision or stratified medicine.
“Precision medicine demonstrates another aspect of collaboration,” says Scott, who has worked in the sector for 25 years, including the past 16 with Tepnel. “Health services are now interested in how they can use precision medicine to deliver drugs or therapies that they know will work for a specific patient, instead of spending millions or indeed billions of dollars each year on medicines and treatments that don’t work.
“Doctors are collaborating with academics and business people to develop precision medicine and we’re working on the biomarkers that will help to identify which treatments work or don’t work for individual patients.”
It’s not only individual companies that can collaborate – partnerships can bring together the public and private sectors too. Scotland is home to a number of innovative schemes that combine the experience and expertise of pharmaceutical companies and university researchers to identify materials that could be developed into the next generation of medicines and therapies.
AstraZeneca and the University of Glasgow work together through their Glazgo Discovery Centre, while the University of Edinburgh has two programmes running through GlaxoSmithKline’s (GSK’s) Discovery Partnerships with Academia (DPAc) initiative, one covering liver diseases and the other pancreatitis.
Collaborations are also at the heart of the Drug Discovery Unit (DDU) at the University of Dundee, a small molecule early-stage medicine development group that was setup in 2006 to translate world-class biology research into validated drug-targets and candidate drugs. One of the stumbling blocks for pharmaceutical companies is the cost of developing medicines – with some estimates suggesting it can take as much as $3.5 billion (£2.7bn) to create a drug – and the high failure rate of drug candidates means businesses have to carefully select the targets on which they will concentrate their efforts.
The DDU was founded by professors Alan Fairlamb and Mike Ferguson. When the pharmaceuticals industry wasn’t able to translate their research in tropical parasitic diseases of the developing world into more-effective treatments for some of the most neglected diseases – including African sleeping sickness, Chagas’ disease and Leishmaniasis – they decided to do it themselves.
They secured grants from the Wellcome Trust and Scottish Funding Council to setup the DDU, which takes novel drug targets and disease pathways and carries out further research to ‘de-risk’ them, identifying the ones that have the highest chance of becoming successful therapies. From their initial work on diseases of the developing world, the DDU was expanded in 2009 when the Medical Research Council (MRC) chose Dundee as one of five UK centres to undertake a devolved portfolio approach with the support of its Developmental Pathway Funding Scheme.
The result was the innovative targets portfolio, which looks at global diseases of unmet medical need – including cancer, diabetes, inflammatory diseases and genetic skin diseases – bringing biological targets together with medicinal chemistry on an industrial scale. The DDU now employs 85 staff and has the highest concentration of medicinal chemists in Scotland.
“The aim was always to expand beyond neglected tropical diseases utilising the previous expertise of our staff, many of whom have come from the biopharmaceutical industry working across a wide range of therapeutic indications,” explains Julie Brady, who joined the DDU in 2013 as business development manager after a decade working as a life sciences manager with Scottish Enterprise.
“Collaborations are key to the success of the DDU. We look globally for novel biology in therapeutics areas of unmet medical need and work with these disease experts to help translate their world-class research into drug discovery programmes and candidate drugs.
“We also collaborate with product development partners and partners in the pharmaceutical industry to advance our candidate drugs through preclinical development and clinical trials in humans.”
Those partners include the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative and GSK for Chagas’ disease and Leishmaniasis, and Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV), with whom the DDU has delivered a drug candidate for malaria that is now in clinical development with Merck Serono. The DDU’s work on tuberculosis (TB) is part of the international TB Drug Accelerator program [sic], which brings together 15 pharmaceutical companies and research groups with support from the Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Collaboration isn’t just about individuals working together either – it can also have an influence on how facilities are designed. After the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh moved from its Victorian buildings on Lauriston Place to the purpose-built premises at Little France on the edge of the city in 2003, NHS Lothian, Scottish Enterprise and the University of Edinburgh began working together to create Edinburgh BioQuarter, a science park that brings together academics, businesspeople and clinicians.
Today, Edinburgh BioQuarter is home to a host of services, including the Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine, translational research at the Queen’s Medical Research Institute, health informatics at the Farr Institute, and Building Nine, an incubation centre for life science companies. The Royal Hospital for Sick Children is due to move into a £150m facility on the site in 2017, with the new Edinburgh Eye Pavilion following in 2018-19.
Having partners working so closely together on a single site is continuing to bring benefits. “NHS Lothian is currently looking at how it can better manage all of its eye care activities,” explains Julia Brown, senior director of life and chemical sciences at Scottish Enterprise.
“At the moment they’re spread across different areas of Edinburgh and the health board wants to bring them all together at the BioQuarter campus. Thanks to the BioQuarter programme, for the first time Scottish Enterprise has been able to bring together industry with the NHS and the university to design a new facility that will put research and patient care at its centre.”
One of the other pieces in the collaboration jigsaw is funding, with the Scottish Government and its agencies making cash available to prime the pump for partnerships. To support recent investments in the area of precision medicine in Scotland, Scottish Enterprise has launched the Genomic Medicine Industrial Catalyst Fund, offering up to £3.5m for industry-led projects to work in collaboration with Scotland’s next-generation sequencing facilities.
The money is available to Scottish and international life sciences companies, including consortia constituted with academic partners. Individuals who are setting up a business in Scotland or plan to move their business there within the next two years are also eligible.
The focus on genomics ties in with the Scottish Genomes Partnership (SGP), an initiative led by the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, along with the National Health Service (NHS) in Scotland, NHS England and Genomics England.
The SGP kicked off in January 2015 with a £15m investment in ten HiSeq X genome sequencing instruments divided between the two universities. A further £6m investment was made jointly in February 2016 by Scotland’s Chief Scientist
Office and the Medical Research Council to enable the sequencing of the genomes of more than 3,000 people in Scotland. There is also the £20m Stratified Medicine Scotland Innovation Centre (SMS-IC) – a public-private partnership hosted by the University of Glasgow at the new Queen Elizabeth University Hospital. The SMS-IC is at the heart of the newly-created Scottish precision medicine ‘ecosystem’, offering industry a single point of contact to work with academics and clinicians.