Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Robert Solari, Medical Research Council Technology


  As CEO of MRCT, I have witnessed the process surrounding the proposed move of NIMR, although I have not been directly involved in the workings of the Task Force. I am well placed to judge the questions of "translational research" because of my current position and my past experiences.

  The MRC has a strategic goal in creating a new NIMR with a clearer commitment to integrating basic biological research with clinical and experimental medicine. The MRC believes that this is both necessary and consistent with its remit to deliver improved human health.

  The decision making process has been inclusive and transparent and has at all times focused on delivering an enhanced Institute in line with future strategic ambitions.

1.  Translating basic science to the clinic

  The MRC is faced with the twin challenges of improving national health and creating increased national wealth. The recent reports from the Bioscience Innovation and Growth Team and the Academy of Medical Sciences both stressed the need to strengthen translational research at the interface between basic science and clinical practice. The MRC is publicly committed to giving this issue greater priority and has embraced the need to enhance its partnerships with the DH and the Bioscience Industry. The MRC is playing an integral part in the new UK Clinical Research Collaboration (UKCRC) and the new MRC/DH Joint Health Delivery Group.

  Two of the key recommendations from the BIGT report were to invest in the bridge between idea generation and commercial funding and to develop, attract and retain a high quality scientific and management base. The economic case was further strengthened by the DTI Innovation report and the Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-14, both of which highlight the need for the UK science base to increase the rate of knowledge transfer and to ensure that scientific knowledge is used by business to create wealth.

  The Bioscience Industry clearly values the high quality of MRC research for its contribution to the knowledge base from which innovation flows. However, the requirements of Industry have changed markedly in recent years and Technology Transfer practices in life sciences must evolve to meet the new challenges if we are to deliver on the "health and wealth" agenda.

2.  Role of the MRCT

  The MRC manages the Intellectual Property generated in its Research Units and Institutes through its affiliated technology transfer company, Medical Research Council Technology (MRCT). The mission of MRCT is to disseminate knowledge and technology to improve the health and economic competitiveness of the UK. To achieve this mission MRCT identifies and protects inventions and seeks to bring such inventions to the market either by licensing to industrial partners or by the creation of new companies. These activities have seen seven new medicines launched that rely upon the invention of antibody engineering techniques by MRC scientists and have generated £60 million in income in the past four years. However, the antibody patent estate will not last indefinitely and the challenge for MRCT is to develop the next generation of MRC breakthroughs that will deliver healthcare improvements and generate economic returns. The current revenue stream is being re-invested in a number of programmes designed to enhance knowledge transfer and to respond to changes in the BioIndustry landscape.

  The first significant change was to expand the team of Technology Transfer managers so that they can actively engage with MRC scientists, to identify opportunities earlier and to create a more entrepreneurial culture.

  The second programme is the creation of a £4.5 million Development Gap Fund specifically designed to support proof of concept studies to bridge the gap between innovative research and a healthcare or industrial application.

  The third components are the applied research laboratories managed by MRCT in Mill Hill and Edinburgh. These laboratories and their dedicated staff try to develop applications for the basic scientific advances being made in the MRC. One area where significant effort is currently being made is in the creation of a Drug Discovery Group (DDG). As a first step we have established an assay development and screening group. This group takes novel therapeutic targets from the MRC, configures them for chemical testing and attempts to find inhibitors that might be useful starting points for full scale drug discovery. The second step will be the creation of a chemistry team that can optimise these chemical starting points into more "drug like" molecules.

  To summarise, MRCT is making a significant contribution to these important translational issues as follows: The £4.5 million Development Gap Fund is already providing valuable proof of concept funding to bridge the gap between innovation and commercial potential. MRCT staff will actively search for innovative therapeutic targets from the MRC science base. This will help create a greater "therapeutic or translational" culture in MRC research establishments. The DDG will generate selective and potent drug-like molecules to help MRC scientists "validate" their therapeutic targets. A critical step in the path from bench to bedside. The DDG will generate drug-like molecules that will strengthen target patents so adding considerable economic value to MRC science. These drug-like molecules will hopefully be starting points for novel therapeutics for unmet medical needs and will provide enhanced partnering opportunities with the Bioscience Industry. The DDG will provide a centre of excellence in drug discovery and so help to train and retain in the UK a strong scientific and management base.

3.  Relationship between MRCT and the MRC science base

  When compared to technology transfer offices in Europe or the USA, there is no doubt that MRCT has enjoyed considerable success in recent years. Although MRCT can take some small credit for these achievements, there is no doubt that the main driver of this success has been the outstanding quality of basic research supported by the MRC. In addition to the quality, the intramural programmes have allowed the MRC to develop strong strategic themes and to build a critical mass of world class scientists in dedicated Units and Institutes. Moreover, the Intellectual Property produced in these Institutes and Units is unambiguously owned by the MRC so allowing efficient exploitation. This integrated structure has helped to create a strong and successful technology transfer organisation.

  In recent years the Research Councils have come under increasing pressure to enhance the rate of knowledge transfer to industry and to make a greater contribution to economic growth of the UK. Inevitably this places the most fundamental, curiosity driven research under pressure to deliver industrial applications. However, we must be very cautious that whilst seeking more "translational" outcomes we do not lose the very core of what makes our science base world class. Some of the most significant breakthroughs in the MRC have come from the study of fundamental biological and biochemical processes.

  The MRC clearly understands the tensions between supporting fundamental research and delivering public value and is deeply committed to maintaining the quality and the breadth of its research base. In this context the MRC has clearly articulated its vision to strengthen the interface between clinical medicine and experimental biology, sometimes referred to as "translational research". It is clear that the MRC's ambition is for NIMR to become a centre of excellence for such translational research.

4.  The relationship between NIMR and MRCT

  MRCT has two Applied Research laboratories, the largest of which is situated at 1-3 Burtonhole Lane, Mill Hill. This is adjacent to the NIMR site and has access to the Institute through a security gate. The MRCT laboratories can make use of the NIMR facilities and we enjoy a close relationship with the scientific staff at the Institute. The role of the MRCT is to identify novel inventions with practical applications and to help develop these towards the patient and the market. We have had many such interactions with scientists at NIMR thanks to the quality and quantity of research being conducted at the site. In addition, the proximity of our two laboratories makes interactions significantly easier. It is also fair to say that a great deal of the research being conducted at NIMR has a very clear and direct human health focus and there is consequently a straightforward dialogue between NIMR and MRCT.

  Nevertheless, despite all of these positive factors, NIMR has made less impact than certain other MRC Institutes in terms of raw technology transfer output measures such as the number of patents filed and spin-out companies created. However, in terms of intangible or non-quantifiable contributions to MRCT's activities at Mill Hill, the NIMR staff have made a huge contribution in terms of support and scientific interactions.

  Given the research focus and strengths of NIMR and the ambitions of MRCT in helping transform novel ideas into new medicines and diagnostics, we should be perfect partners. In discussions between Sir John Skehel and me, we have both expressed a strong desire to work more closely together to achieve these goals.

5.  Translational Research

  What is translational research and what does this mean for NIMR? The term is used widely and loosely and appears to mean many different things to different people. At one end of the spectrum it can refer to the testing of therapeutic agents in man in clinical trials and at the other end of the spectrum it can relate to the discovery of those novel therapeutic agents. It can relate to the study of normal physiology, at both the tissue and cellular level, and how this changes during progression of a disease. It can relate to genetic and environmental factors that predispose or cause certain disease states. All of these approaches can and are called translational research. Some of these approaches can be addressed using model systems in vitro or in model organisms such as baker's yeast, nematode worms, fruitflies and mice. However, many of these approaches require access to man in order to generate hypotheses or to test them. If we are to harness the great advances in basic science clinicians need to understand the power of modern biological technologies and basic experimental biologists need to have a better understanding of clinical practice. So without abandoning curiosity driven research we can perhaps get better at asking more relevant questions. It is with this aim that the MRC wishes to integrate NIMR into a hospital environment. In my opinion, such an integrated environment would be beneficial for delivery of the "translational" vision that MRC has articulated for NIMR.

6.  Impact

  One of the great strengths of the MRC is the structure of their Intramural research and the ability this gives to make major strategic decisions. The proposed changes are intended to have an impact on the research in NIMR, hopefully this will be a positive impact and it will effect the changes required to deliver on the renewed vision. The proposed changes will in the long run lead to an evolution in the composition of the research teams as different skills and perspectives will be required. I believe this will ultimately benefit patients and hopefully deliver greater economic returns.

22 November 2004

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