Cancer Research UK: at the forefront of developing new drugs

“We are unique. No other charity does anything like this”

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Dr Nigel Blackburn explains how CRUK takes risks that industry won’t, making it an exciting place for those who want to beat cancer with science : ‘We are unique. No other charity does anything like this.’ Photograph: @CR_UK

Cancer Research UK is the world’s leading cancer charity dedicated to saving lives, and the second biggest funder of cancer research worldwide. In the last 40 years, we’ve helped double the cancer survival rate so that now, two in four people survive their disease. But this is only the beginning. We have now set ourselves a target that within 20 years, three in four people will beat cancer.

If we are to achieve this goal, then new, more effective treatments are required. This is why we are working to accelerate the development of novel therapies, bringing them to patients as quickly as possible.

Dr Nigel Blackburn leads Cancer Research UK’s Centre for Drug Development (CDD), a centre of excellence in early phase cancer drug development, focusing on novel technologies that wouldn’t progress without the charity’s support.

We are unique,” says Blackburn. “No other charity does anything like this; we are the only charitably funded drug development group in the world – and that’s an exciting place to be.”

Industry is naturally driven by the market, and is therefore risk adverse. Because we are free of this profit burden we get to be more innovative, we can try new things and take more risks, and so the rewards are potentially greater. The ideal project for CDD will be one that is first in class, first in man, novel – in short we want exciting science. If you love drug development and are interested in oncology, this is a great place to be.”

With a portfolio of 28 projects, CDD’s cancer portfolio ranks alongside those of the top five pharmaceutical companies in terms of cancer drugs in development. These drugs range from small molecules, immunologicals and cell therapies through to imaging agents and vaccines.

Blackburn adds: “At the moment we are working on the world’s first therapeutic IgE antibody, called MOV18. Originally no companies were interested in this as it was deemed too new, too risky. But now we are showing that it is viable, several companies are interested in licensing it. As another example, we are also developing a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) immunotherapy which will be the third ever CAR trial in the UK (and CDD will have run two of them). Being a charity we can be brave and take risks that no one else will. And if it one day results in new treatments that might give more people more time with their families, then that is a fantastic result.”

As part of Cancer Research UK’s new strategy, CDD is expanding, aiming to increase its portfolio to around 35 projects. These are sourced from both industry and academia, picking up on good projects that are not being taken forward, either because of a lack of funding, being outside a company’s strategic priorities, or deemed too novel for pharma giants to adopt.

We recently took on a cancer vaccine called IMA950 from a small German biotech,” says Blackburn. “They lacked the resources to carry out phase one trials on a glioblastoma treatment, so we ran it for them. After successfully meeting all our end points, the biotech company were in a place to buy the data back from us and continue its trials. Should the drug progress, not only will we receive milestones payments and royalties, but most importantly we will have helped a potential life-saving therapy to reach the people who need it. Without our work this vaccine may have remained on the shelf indefinitely.”

As well as carrying out early stage trials, CDD also runs Combinations Alliance, a matchmaking service for investigators seeking novel drug combinations. “Here, we don’t fund trials,” explains Blackburn. “Industry partners open up their portfolios of phase 2 and 3 drugs, and we act like a dating agency, providing the framework, resources and knowledge to help partners find potentially exciting new matches. We also offer preclinical funding to help investigators acquire the data they need to carry out a new combination trial. This service could really help advance cancer therapy, and is only possible because we are a charity.

He adds: “We are now recruiting for new researchers for our team. As we typically focus on smaller, phase one projects, our researchers get to work on five, six, even seven projects, all with different modalities. There is an incredible breadth of research here. If you are interested in becoming an expert in oncology, in working on novel and exciting science, and in helping to beat cancer, then there is nowhere better to work.”

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