ON Helix 2018 - Review

ON Helix is One Nucleus’ flagship summer translational research confernece. The 2018 conference was the sixth in this series, with the strapline ‘Translating UK scientific excellence into global scientific strategies’; a different format, over two days rather than one; and a new venue, the Cambridge building at Babraham Research Campus. This landscaped site, six miles south-east of Cambridge city centre, is home to about sixty organisations including many established and startup biotech companies. Delegates clearly valued the extended format, with both days fully subscribed, and the networking space was party to many lively discussions. This is necessarily a partial account, as I could only attend the first day and can report on only one of three parallel streams. It was difficult to choose between these, but I eventually settled on one covering novel technologies; the others focused, respectively, on finance and deal-making and on clinical development. That stream was divided by therapeutic area, with sessions covering immuno-oncology, neurodegeneration and (on the second day) vaccines, gene therapy and respiratory disorders.

The conference was opened and delegates welcomed to the Babraham campus by Jon Green, who has chaired the board of One Nucleus for the past eight years. Green’s ‘day job’ is Vice President Site General Manager for MedImmune, a wholly-owned subsidiary of AstraZeneca: he has overall responsibility for the transfer of that company’s UK research capability to its new Cambridge home on the Addenbrooke’s Hospital campus. He stressed the strength of the Cambridge life sciences cluster and its important role in improving healthcare as well as the health of ‘UK plc’.

He then introduced the first of three keynote speakers: Rosemarie Truman from the Center for Advancing Innovation (CAI), a social impact investor based in Bethesda, Maryland. She presented the CAI model as ‘an audacious proposal for large pharma’ wishing to invest in entrepreneurs and inventions with a potential for social as well as financial impact. This model involves selecting the most promising of thousands of patented inventions that have not been taken to market, building and mentoring multi-disciplinary teams around them, forming startup companies and helping these companies grow. Initial inventions are selected through targeted, competitive initiatives such as the recently completed ‘Freedom from Cancer Challenge’. This ‘disruptive’ methodology was described in the journal Nature Biotechnology as ‘Tinder for startups’ and it works worldwide: its UK-based successes include Cambridge Cancer Genomics, which is developing blood tests to guide decisions in cancer therapy.

The next speaker was Jane Grogan, Principal Scientist in cancer immunotherapy at the biotech giant Genentech. Her overview of that company’s development strategy ‘from drug discovery to the clinic’, focusing on her own discipline, was more conventional than Truman’s but no less inspiring. She explained that an analysis of the immune responses of tumours has led them to be classified into three types, each of which will respond differently to T-cell based immunotherapy. This, however, is only the beginning of tumour stratification: the ultimate aim is ‘Personal Healthcare 2.0’ in which the biomarkers of each patient’s cancer are fully characterised and an optimum individual treatment plan selected. A new type of ‘smart’ clinical trial will be needed to test this approach thoroughly.

Kevin Lin, President of Tuspark Holdings (UK) wound up the keynote session. Tuspark is the name of the science park venture of Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, which is investing £200M in Cambridge in a joint venture with Trinity College. By the end of 2019, this investment will have funded four state-of-the-art new buildings on the Cambridge Science Park off Milton Road, including that park’s first bio-innovation centre. This is one of a large and growing number of joint ventures that Tuspark has been making worldwide; it has another centre in Newcastle (UK) and others in Milan, Moscow and many North American and Far Eastern cities. Lin intends the Cambridge initiative to be a hub for collaboration between UK bioscience companies and their Chinese counterparts. The keynote session was followed by a lively discussion, chaired by Tony Jones, who was just completing his first year as One Nucleus’ CEO. He commented on the varied nature of the three presentations and on the potential for synergy between them.

Three sets of parallel sessions followed an excellent lunch. In the ‘technology’ strand, the first session covered the intriguing topic of artificial intelligence (AI) as a tool for drug discovery. The first speaker was Peyman Gifani, founder and CEO of Cambridge-based startup AI VIVO. He described his company’s approach succinctly as ‘intelligent systems pharmacology’ or, alternatively, ‘data-driven decision making’. Patented machine-learning algorithms analyse large quantities of structured and unstructured data, including ‘omics and patient data, to answer one of two questions: ‘which disease areas can this compound target effectively?’ and ‘which compounds could be effective treatments for this disease?’ BenevolentAI is a rather longer-established company, founded in 2013 and with sites in London, Cambridge, Antwerp and New York. Mark Rackham, a principal scientist based in London, described a case study in which machine learning and ‘the world’s largest biomedical knowledge graph’ were used to search for targets and drugs for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the neurodegenerative disease made famous by Stephen Hawking.  Interestingly, this pulled out a widely used anti-cancer drug, the kinase inhibitor gefitinib, as a potential treatment for this disease.

The second technology session covered the areas of imaging and digital pathology. Jane Coppard from Roche Diagnostics, based in Tonbridge in Kent, took a broad overview of these technologies as used in diagnosis. This is a huge business; approximately 70% of clinical decisions are based on some type of in vitro testing, and the NHS alone spends over £10 billion each year on such tests. Unfortunately, however, too much of NHS business, including pathology services, is still largely paper-based. This does appear to be changing; the UK’s Life Sciences Industrial Strategy, published in August 2017, lists digital pathology as one of several priorities for investment. Roche Diagnostics is working on techniques for digitising and analysing large numbers of pathology slides, and Coppard hopes that the UK, with its single provider, might even become known as a ‘gold standard’ for the implementation of this technology.

Maja Wallberg from the Department of Pathology at Cambridge University then described how her group is using non-invasive imaging in the diagnosis of type 1 diabetes. This form of the disease starts when the pancreas is infiltrated by T and B cells from the patient’s own immune system. It is typically only diagnosed once this auto-immune response has destroyed at least 20% of the insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreatic islets. Wallberg has grafted islet cells from transgenic mice that are pre-disposed to develop diabetes into their ears and has developed a non-invasive method of imaging islet infiltration in order to understand and try to prevent this process at an early stage.

The final technology session was rather loosely focused on drug delivery. First to speak was Mike Romanos from Microbiotica, a new company spun out of the Sanger Institute in December 2016 to exploit the Institute’s research into the genomics of the human gut microbiome. This varies enormously between individuals and is disrupted in a wide range of diseases. Microbiotica’s platform starts with a deep genomic analysis of patient microbiome samples; its aim is to develop and deliver bacteria-based therapies that can ‘reset’ an individual’s gut bacteria. The initial target diseases are Clostridium difficile infection, which can already be treated successfully with ‘probiotic’ bacteria that are common in the healthy gut, and ulcerative colitis. Finally, Ruchi Starma, CEO and founder of Cambridge-based startup Stemnovate Ltd., described her company’s innovative ‘liver on a chip’ for testing drugs for liver toxicity. This complex device uses liver cells differentiated from an individual patient’s pluripotent stem cells and provides a more specific and personalised liver model than either cell lines or animal models. As this toxicity is one of the commonest reasons why candidate drugs fail clinical trials, improving the accuracy to which it can be predicted should provide significant time and cost savings in drug development.

The scientific programme ended with a fascinating panel discussion on the important topic of communication in the life sciences. The panellists came from a wide variety of backgrounds: Richard Westcott, science and technology correspondent of BBC Look East; Steve Palmer, head of communications at the Sanger Institute; Sabine Jaccaud, in a roughly equivalent [position at AstraZeneca’s new research base in Cambridge; Mike Scialom of the new weekly newspaper, the Cambridge Independent; and an academic, Chris Lowe, who founded the Cambridge Academy of Therapeutic Sciences for training drug discovery professionals. One common message was that, however complex the science or experienced the audience, people always respond well to stories. This was illustrated with anecdotes about interviewing patients during brain surgery; travelling across Europe with samples of DNA; and the perils of presenting medical breakthroughs that have not yet reached the clinic. The day ended with a well-attended reception.

I am greatly looking forward to returning to Babraham next year for ON Helix 2019. The dates of 2 and 3 July, are already in my diary and I hope that this time I will be able to make both days.

Written by Claire Sansom

The One Nucleus blog is written by individuals and is not necessarily a reflection of the views held by One Nucleus.