Cambridge Biotech: Back to the Future

Cambridge Antibody Technology has been described as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the UK biotech industry; it is certainly one of our region’s principal success stories. This company, originally known as CAT, was founded in 1989 to take advantage of phage display technology for the development of antibody therapeutics. Following worldwide success with the blockbuster anti-TNF antibody adalimumab (Humira™) it was acquired by AstraZeneca in 2006 and now forms part of that company’s biologics subsidiary.

There has been plenty of speculation about the reasons for CAT’s stellar success and how this can best be replicated in the 21st century. A wide-ranging panel discussion at ON Helix brought together five people who had held senior professional roles at CAT to look back at the company’s history and draw out lessons for the future. The panellists were: John McCaffey, one of the company’s original founders who now leads a new Cambridge-based antibody company, Iontas; Rowena Gardner, a communications professional who worked there for six years; Jane Dancer, who worked for CAT in business development and now has a similar role in the antibody company F-Star; Jon Green from AstraZeneca, who was involved in the acquisition; and Richard Mason, who had senior roles at Johnson & Johnson after CAT and now heads a new Cambridge-based ‘ideas factory’, C21Med. = Mike Ward of Pharma Intelligence was an effective chair.

Mike asked the panellists to comment on what had attracted them to working at CAT in the first place. John highlighted the company’s very early days in (now Sir) Greg Winter’s lab in the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology in Cambridge. The uniquely collaborative environment at the LMB has nurtured several innovative companies as well as over 12 Nobel prizes, the latest being Winter’s share of the Chemistry prize in 2018. The company grew rapidly once it moved out of the LMB onto the Babraham Institute campus in the early 90s, and it was already successful by the time Jane and Rowena began working there, drawn as much by the people and the working environment as by the innovative science. “I started with a two-month position, but stayed for six years”, remembers Rowena.

Cambridge – not always the company’s location, as it expanded for a time into labs in Melbourn with a Stevenage postcode, but always in its name – gave it an advantage in several ways. The city was something of an exception to the doldrums into which the European biotech industry sank in the early 90s, and it was very well placed to take advantage of the boom a decade or so later. The ‘Cambridge cluster’ that grew up in the 90s is still one of the largest geographical clusters of innovative life sciences companies in Europe.

The scientists on the panel, as well as Rowena in communications, remembered needing to explain the concept of phage display that lies behind CAT’s technologies to their peers, and also to investors who were, by nature, generalists.  The collaborative, entrepreneurial ethos at the company helped it reach out to these investors, which was essential from time to time: even the most successful small company goes through funding ups and downs, sometimes coming close to running out of cash.

The events that led to the sale to AstraZeneca started with one of these, following the dotcom crash in the early 2000s and a couple of unsuccessful deals. “We had to look for a sugar daddy… a big pharma with no current antibody partner”, remembered Richard. “AstraZeneca fit the bill very well, and they threw us a lifeline.” In fact, their managers liked the company so much that they left it completely independent: nothing much changed until the merger with the much larger MedImmune a year later. This time, the upheaval associated with this takeover caused many senior staff to leave. “After the acquisition, MedImmune had four different CEOs in about a year”, remembered John. However, the division is now growing again, under AstraZeneca’s branding since February 2019. And this exodus created several successful Cambridge-based companies in similar therapeutic areas, including Iontas and F-Star. One of these could well become ‘the next CAT’. Cambridge in 2019 is far from a perfect environment for biotechs – its infrastructure struggles to keep up with the demand, and its young entrepreneurs need nurturing and training – but even with the sharks of Brexit lurking ahead, it remains a great place to live and work.

Written by Dr Clare Sansom - Freelance Science Writer

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