Cancer Research Technology, the technology transfer company of research charity Cancer Research UK, said this month that it is doubling the size of its internal drug-discovery and -development laboratories over the next year.
The expansion is intended to help CRT meet the growing demand for its translational research services in the UK, and to fuel its expansion into the US, where it hopes to apply its model for commercializing early-stage cancer technologies to university-based research.
CRT announced its plans two weeks ago in conjunction with the annual Biotechnology Industry Organization conference in Boston. Larry Steranka, managing director of CRT’s US subsidiary, moderated a session at BIO entitled “Bridging the Gap vs. Vertical Integration,” which explored the various models that universities and non-profit research institutions might use to help commercialize early-stage biotechnologies.
According to Steranka and other panelists, a development gap exists in university technology transfer in which many research discoveries are too early-stage to attract interest from industry. The development gap issue is currently a hot topic in the technology transfer community as universities lament the lack of early-stage funding or other resources to bring nascent technologies to market.
Steranka said that in the context of the traditional drug-discovery pipeline, the development gap spans assay design and high-throughput screening, hit-to-lead, lead optimization, and in vivo proof-of-principle. In other words, publicly funded academic research often stops at the very first stage of target validation and feasibility, while pharmaceutical companies or biotechs are most interested in picking up technologies in the late stages of proof-of-principle and in the pre-clinical and clinical phases.
Steranka presented several examples of recent initiatives by non-profit research organizations to address the drug-development gap, including Harvard University’s Technology Accelerator Fund, an internal, drug-discovery oriented, philanthropic “evergreen” fund; and the Wellcome Trust’s drug-discovery seed program, a grant program to fund projects to develop drug-like, small molecules.
CRT, on the other hand, is a relatively new model for addressing the drug-development gap. Its parent, Cancer Research UK, was launched in 2002 following the merger of the UK’s Cancer Research Campaign and Imperial Cancer Research Fund. CR-UK employs its own scientists and supports grant-funded researchers at UK universities, institutes, and hospitals. It is entirely funded by donations from the public – about $700 million between 2005 and 2006.
According to Steranka, CRT works with non-profit research institutions worldwide on a revenue-sharing basis to protect, develop, and commercialize cancer-related intellectual property arising from their research. It achieves this, in part, through internal development laboratories with core competencies in molecular and cellular biology, drug discovery, early pharmacology, and medicinal chemistry.
It is this branch of CRT that will double in size over the next year to about 90 scientists. CRT also has a business development and IP-licensing arm that provides these services for CR-UK and non-CR-UK-affiliated non-profits. This branch, however, is not increasing in size in the immediate future, Steranka said.
CRT plans to expand its development labs in the UK and in the US, where it is hoping to attract US universities and non-profit research institutes looking for a way to further develop early-stage cancer treatments to commercial viability.
“We're interested in determining the extent to which CRT's experience in commercializing early-stage cancer technologies – obtained mainly from … Cancer Research UK – might be of value to non-profit tech-transfer offices in the US,” Steranka wrote in an e-mail to BTW following BIO. “We're happy to review cancer-related technologies, [and] if we think we can facilitate commercialization … we will carry all ongoing costs – unless noted otherwise – and work on a revenue-sharing basis.”
“We're interested in determining the extent to which CRT's experience in commercializing early-stage cancer technologies – obtained mainly from … Cancer Research UK – might be of value to non-profit tech-transfer offices in the US.”
Specific ways that CRT believes it can facilitate drug commercialization include licensing services, including in-licensing, out-licensing, and patent prosecution; identifying potential licensees such as pharmaceutical partners; conducting R&D to bring a drug to the in vivo or pre-clinical stage; and even facilitating clinical trials through CR-UK.
Basically, the CRT staff “does a lot of the middle work,” in the drug-discovery process, Steranka said at BIO.
CRT is headquartered in London, and has set up its US subsidiary in Boston. Its first partnership, announced in March, was an oncology-focused drug-discovery collaboration with Fox Chase Cancer Center to develop small-molecule inhibitors of an undisclosed kinase. Under the terms of that agreement, CRT will be responsible for commercializing the inhibitors and any associated intellectual property arising from the research. Any revenues generated following commercialization will be shared between CRT and Fox Chase.
In the UK, CRT has discovery projects in various stages with the Netherlands Cancer Institute, Northern Institute for Cancer Research in Newcastle, University College London, Cardiff University, Glasgow University, Dundee University, Stealthyx Therapeutics, and Bristol University. CRT is also a commercialization partner in Australia’s recently established Cooperative Research Center for Cancer Therapeutics.
Steranka said that CRT expects to be able to take on eight to 10 high-throughput screening assays, four hit-to-lead projects, one to two lead optimization projects, one to two therapeutic or diagnostic projects, and a limited number of target ID and validation jobs per year. It is unclear what the project capacity of CRT’s US subsidiary will be.
CRT also recently named a new CEO, Keith Blundy, to lead the overall expansion efforts, while Steranka will head the US branch activity. CRT said it plans to draw its new hires from both academia and industry.