The most pressing healthcare challenges for society are complex and hard to treat – cancer, diabetes, dementia, autoimmune and inflammatory diseases, and many more.
Developing new medicines is becoming ever harder. And those in the pharmaceutical and biotech sector recognise that we need to understand more about the biological processes at the root of these conditions before we can get a better idea of how to target them with new therapies.
Over the past decade and more, several partnerships have been set up between pharmaceutical companies, universities and research centres – with different structures and goals, and sometimes mixed results.
We both have direct experience of the Crick’s partnership with GSK: the LinkLabs collaboration. We believe it is proving particularly successful and are convinced much of this success is down to one stand-out feature: we have scientists from industry and academia working side by side to tackle fundamental science problems.
Shoulder to shoulder
We have scientists from GSK working in labs in the Crick building, and Crick scientists working at GSK’s UK R&D hub site in Stevenage, Hertfordshire. These are projects that are possible only through sharing our different sets of skills and expertise, and making use of our combined facilities and technologies.
In the Rittinger lab, for example, we’ve had a GSK-funded postdoc using novel chemical approaches to find new ways of targeting an important enzyme. We’ve just published a significant paper as a result of that work.
Separately a Crick postdoc has gone in the other direction, spending several months at GSK. There she’s had access to a platform for developing novel antibodies against the same enzyme. It’s a particular enzyme in the ubiquitin ligase family which plays an important role in immune signalling and cell death. It is implicated in a range of conditions but we don’t fully understand yet how it regulates these processes.
Neither of these projects would have happened without the partnership, because neither party would have had the full range of skills to take them on by themselves. But by matching up our shared interests in understanding biological mechanisms with access to the right expertise and technologies, the result has been new tools to probe cellular processes involving the enzyme, and insights that might be important for tackling disease.
This really reflects how this partnership between academia and industry may be unique. Crick and GSK scientists working together in the same lab on the same projects means there is a real commitment to the work and full access to technology, people’s time and expertise – something you just don’t get when working in different locations, no matter how many Skype calls and project meetings you have.
There is another benefit too that shouldn’t be underestimated, and that’s in developing people. This benefits the individuals, our organisations and the sector more widely. We’re developing top scientists by exchanging ideas and expertise across traditional boundaries, equipping them for a career in a modern work environment. We think this is a real draw for some of the best scientists.
With the first joint projects now having been going for three years, we are beginning to see the findings published. While this is still early discovery research, we hope that in time some of the insights will lead to ideas for new treatment approaches.
We believe so much of the successful progress we’re seeing on these projects is about people. There is just a different level of openness and trust when you work together in the same place. When your aims align, cultures fit and you share a common goal and interest in the science - that’s when a partnership just works.