Drug discovery and the pharmaceutical industry: collaborating for progress


By Kirsty Marais | Thursday 20 October 2016

Dementia is too big a challenge for one organisation to tackle alone. As the UK’s leading dementia research charity, we’re proud to be funding cutting-edge, innovative science, but we’re also continually working to encourage investment across the board. To develop new treatments for dementia, we need a thriving research sector, and the pharmaceutical industry is a crucial part of this. It typically takes tens of millions to put one new drug through a late-stage clinical trial, for example, and very often it’s pharmaceutical companies who can offer the financial muscle for this work.

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) this week released a report examining some of the changes the pharmaceutical sector has experienced in the last decade, and it turns out the way these companies work has evolved considerably in that time. Through research with a range of companies, the report reveals a much more collaborative approach to drug discovery work today, with many firms working on projects with other companies, charities and academic researchers. It shows that many larger firms have reduced the number of in-house staff working on drug discovery projects, spending more on outsourcing and collaborative working instead.

Bridging the gap

This is where charities like Alzheimer’s Research UK have an important role. The shift in focus by many established companies has created a gap which we are working to fill: by stepping in to support early stage drug discovery work that might previously have been undertaken by a large pharmaceutical company, we aim to develop research ideas to a stage where firms with more resources can take them forward into clinical trials.


The drug discovery process

We’ve kick-started some exciting initiatives that bridge this gap and which hinge on partnership working. One example is the Dementia Consortium, through which Alzheimer’s Research UK, MRC Technology and several pharmaceutical companies are co-funding a range of early-stage drug discovery projects. This unique initiative not only offers funding, but provides resources, advice and industry expertise to give projects the best chance of success. Meanwhile our Drug Discovery Alliance – a £30m network of three Drug Discovery Institutes, launched last year – is working to fast-track promising discoveries from academic research into potential new treatments. This pioneering research will feed into later-stage drug discovery work which could be taken forward by the pharmaceutical industry. Research at these institutes is already attracting interest from potential industry partners, who have the resources behind them to develop this work into treatments that could be given to people.

Programmes like these contribute to a thriving research environment which allows cross-pollination of ideas as well as sharing of resources and best practice, in turn speeding up the pace of progress towards new treatments. At Alzheimer’s Research UK we’ve seen real enthusiasm for partnership from the pharmaceutical sector, and it’s encouraging to see that the industry as a whole is embracing this way of working.

Supporting UK research

The report paints a positive picture of UK research, but we must not be complacent. The findings also show that investment in drug discovery in the UK is not increasing at the same pace as other parts of the world. The ABPI warns that if this trend continues, this could affect the UK’s standing in research. A flourishing life sciences sector needs investment from industry, charities and government, and we must make sure each part of this ecosystem is supported.

That’s why as well as supporting our own research programmes and building partnerships with industry, Alzheimer’s Research UK has consistently campaigned for government support for research. Every £1 increase in public funding for medical research generates up to £5 of investment by the pharmaceutical industry, further boosting for the search for new treatments. It’s just one reason the Prime Minister’s Challenge on Dementia 2020, which includes a plan to increase the number of dementia researchers and invest £300m in research, is so important. It will be crucial for our new Ministerial team to maintain momentum on this challenge, and this week’s report further underlines a need to ensure that UK research does not lose out as a result of Brexit, something we blogged about back in July. We’ll continue to hold policymakers to account on these issues, and if you’d like to help us make our voice heard, we welcome your support – visit our website to sign up to become a campaigner.


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Kirsty Marais