Cambridge University and Cambridge Biomedical Campus can help the local biotech cluster chase down the lead opened up by the city’s hi-tech and ICT companies, according to the University’s vice-chancellor.
Prof Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, speaking at Cambridge Network’s 'Cambridge going forward - healthcare' event, told an audience of over 200 that although the hi-tech, physical sciences and engineering sectors had out-performed biotech in recent years, conditions were now right for a resurgence.
“Has [biotech] done as much as those other sectors? No I don’t think so. Do I think it could overtake those sectors? Yes, but it does mean it requires particular investment,” Prof Sir Leszek said.
Prof Sir Leszek took over as vice-chancellor of Cambridge University in October 2010, having previously spent three years as chief executive of the Medical Research Council.
He believes the Cambridge Biomedical Campus - future plans for which were outlined by Dr Robert Winter - is central to a “unique opportunity” for the local biotech community.
The co-location of academics, clinicians and businesses at the Addenbrooke’s Hospital site provides the capacity to manage every stage of the process of translating discoveries and ideas into successful products, while buy-in from Big Pharma provides access to medicinal chemistry, “necessary for both therapeutics and diagnostics in the future,” Prof Sir Leszek said.
The biomedical campus is the hub for Cambridge University Health Partners, a strategic alliance between Cambridge University and three Cambridgeshire NHS foundation trusts and one of five to be designated an Academic Health Science Centre and NIHR Comprehensive Biomedical Research Centre. The Health Partnership was recently awarded a five-year funding package of £110m, more than it applied for, according to Prof Sir Leszek.
In addition to Cambridge University Hospitals and University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine, the campus is also home to an impressive array of major research centres funded by the MRC, Wellcome Trust, Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation.
Importantly Big Pharma is also on board, with Merck, Pfizer and GSK operating research bases on the site.
The proximity of the £650m Crick Institute, set to open in 2015, the GSK New Frontiers Science Park in Harlow, which could soon host the Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response (CEPR), the John Innes Centre and Rothamsted, among other highly regarded research organisations, adds further to the proposition, according to Prof Sir Leszek.
Dr Winter, director of the Academic Health Science System for Cambridge University Health Partners described how the “entirely unique” partnership of scientists, clinicians and businesses had allowed the campus to “leverage” over £540m in external grant funding since 2006, drawn in funding of £37.5m from the pharmaceutical industry and seen 87,536 patients recruited to experimental medicine studies.
Crucially, the infrastructure is now in place to address to the two key “translational gaps” that can stop science being translated into new products or practices, Dr Winter says. He believes the biomedical research centre can be “the engine for gap one closure” - at the proof of concept stage - while Cambridge University Health Partners and the academic science network can help clinically proven products be more quickly adopted across a network of hospitals. He stressed that the biomedical campus was “open for business.”
Plans to more than double the funding pot for the Government’s SBRI programme would also help to alleviate the bottlenecks at the early phases of the chain, he believes.
“The opportunity for business is great. We have the talent, we have the connectivity, we have the infrastructure and amenities. We also have the advantage of having farmland all around us, which we can use to develop and build,” Dr Winter said.
MRC’s new £200m+ Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) is due to open in October of this year, while the UK’s largest specialist cardiothoracic hospital, Papworth Hospital is expected to move into a new £165m facility on site by late 2015. Plans for a “multi-occupancy” building are also well advanced.
Serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist, Hermann Hauser, who hosted the Q and A session at the end of the presentations, said the campus was further evidence that the University was entering a “third phase” in its relationship with the business world. The first phase, he says, was characterised by mutual suspicion, the second by a willingness to co-operate but a lack of understanding.
“I see this as the beginning of the third phase where we have developed the competence also. Cambridge is finally firing on all cylinders,” he said.
Despite being bullish on Cambridge and UK biotech’s prospects, Prof Sir Leszek believes there are still obstacles, particularly with regard to the “resources” available for commercialising innovation: “There is something unusual about the nature of investment into this sector [biotech].
"There is a longer lead-in time between idea and discovery to getting to proof of concept. It’s very important to get to that stage before you can engage serious capital investors.That is why I believe this sector has one or two difficulties - particularly with the drying up of venture capital.”
“TSB [Technology Strategy Board] and other government agencies are trying to put that investment in, so I remain very optimistic that it will not only catch up but ultimately overtake the other sectors in this area. It’s a lead we’ve got and boy are we going to use it.”
Regenerative medicine expert Dr Cathy Prescott believes that stem cell research and regenerative medicine are a key part of the package that Cambridge can sell to the rest of the world.
With the highest density of stem cell researchers in Europe - a total of 26 University labs are conducting research with stem cells - Cambridge clinicians have already begun clinical trials using cell based regenerative medicines to treat diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s Disease.
“Many products are waiting in the wings to enter the clinic in 2012,” Dr Prescott said.
While she highlighted the recent European Court of Justice ruling banning patents for procedures using human embryonic stem cells as one of a number challenges facing the industry - along with the manufacturing costs of cell-based products, Prof Sir Leszek said the University would be prepared to get around the ban by patenting its breakthroughs through subsidiaries in the US or Indian sub-continent.
He said: “There is a fundamental issue here that Europe has got to resolve and frankly I don’t think we should stand back and prevent some of these major opportunities reaching the patient as quickly as possible.”
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