Campus close-up: Institute of Cancer Research

Putting industry collaboration at the heart of its mission helps the ICR to commercial and scholarly success

October 23, 2014

Source: Science Photo Library

Vital ingredient: ‘our academics all realise that their discoveries won’t defeat cancer unless there is an intermediary involved to translate them’

The “valley of death” that supposedly separates university biomedical research from commercialisation has been well remarked upon.

The government acknowledged the problem in its Life Sciences Strategy, launched in 2011, and the issue also received political attention from last year’s Witty Review of Universities and Growth and from the Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, which opened an inquiry in March into business-university collaboration.

According to Angela Kukula, director of enterprise at London’s Institute of Cancer Research, politicians could do much worse than take a close look at how her institution gains startling levels of academic and commercial success.

The ICR earned the top overall score in Times Higher Education’s ranking of institutions based on results of the 2008 research assessment exercise. According to Dr Kukula, it has been the world’s most successful academic centre at discovering new cancer drugs – identifying 17 candidates and taking seven into clinical trials since 2005. Last year, it generated more than £11 million in commercialisation royalties.

The key, she said, is involving industry in the development of new therapies not merely at the translation stage but sometimes right from the very beginning of projects. She cited a recent agreement with medical imaging company Elekta and the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust to collaborate on delivering radiotherapy to tumours in organs that move, such as the lungs.

The proliferation of commercial collaborations is partly a result of clear signals from high up in the ICR about their value, but it also has to do with the fact that the ICR’s mission to “make discoveries that defeat cancer” attracts a certain kind of scientist, Dr Kukula said.

“Our academics all realise that their discoveries won’t defeat cancer unless there is an intermediary involved to translate them. We simply don’t have the money, the technical resources, the facilities or, in some cases, the expertise to [do it all ourselves]. We could not on our own afford to conduct large-scale clinical trials, and neither do we have the facilities to manufacture equipment for use in diagnostics and imaging.”

Some academics are more keen to collaborate than others, she admitted, “but that is often a function of the kind of work they are doing rather than an inherent dislike of working with companies”.

Some of the alliances arise from chance meetings of institute and industry scientists at conferences. Others are suggested by the ICR’s business development team. But, even then, the scientists have the final say on whether to proceed because collaborations “never work if the scientists aren’t on the same page. If they aren’t enthused, they aren’t going to put a lot of energy into it and the company won’t get the results it wants.”

Despite its enthusiasm for collaboration, the institute is “very selective” about partners, working only with companies that it knows will “quickly and effectively take our research forward and into the clinic”. Just as vital is a willingness to allow ICR academics to publish the shared findings in academic journals.

The key to negotiating on the latter point, Dr Kukula said, is taking the time to explain to a company why publishing papers matters as much as developing drugs to an academic institution funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England and obliged to enter the research excellence framework.

“But we are quite pragmatic,” she added. “If there is something the company is particularly sensitive about, we might put some ring-fences around that. We have always been able to find a compromise.”

Only once all these issues have been resolved are the details of financial arrangements discussed. Doing it this way, according to Dr Kukula, makes the bargaining “less fraught”. And while the institute “negotiates strongly” to secure its valuation of its intellectual property, she can recall only one occasion when a collaboration fell through on financial grounds – and even that was because, in her analysis, the objections of the academic to the company’s offer indicated that he “didn’t really want to do the collaboration” in the first place.

Dr Kukula said that the £11 million in commercial income yielded last year by this “fair and reasonable” approach is the second highest among all UK higher education institutions, and “easily the most when adjusted for size of organisation”.

“Money will never be our primary focus, but it is a sign of what we are doing right,” she said.

In numbers

£11m - the amount the Institute of Cancer Research earned last year in commercial income

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