CWWeekly presents this feature as a spotlight on issues faced by executives in drug research and development. This week, writer Karyn Korieth spoke with Marc Rogers, Ph.D., chief scientific officer of Metrion Biosciences, a specialist ion-channel CRO and drug discovery business based in Cambridge, U.K.
Q: Metrion recently joined a consortium known as DRGNET, which was formed to give industry and academic researchers access to human dorsal root ganglion (hDRG) neurons in pain research. How can the consortium advance the development of medicines for chronic pain?
A: Developing new types of pain medications without side effects or poor tolerability of existing mechanisms and agents has proven extremely challenging. One of the major weaknesses of the traditional approach has been relying on testing against human proteins, but then passing through preclinical animal models before building back up to human clinical trials. The traditional animal pain models do not always translate well into the clinic and many promising early leads fail to deliver.
The DRGNET consortium aims to progress pain research through the translational insights gained from using native hDRG tissue in both a basic research setting in academia as well as with applied drug discovery uses in biotech and pharma. The industry is keenly aware of the need for more predictive translational “stepping stones” between screening assays and human clinical trials. The availability and use of human stem cell-derived iPS neurons and native DRG tissue should help make crossing this gap more reliable and cost-effective.
Q: Why has there been an increase of these types of research partnerships between industry and academic institutions in recent years?
A: It is difficult and expensive for large pharma companies to maintain expertise and cutting-edge skills in all areas of drug discovery and impossible for smaller biotech and CROs to do so. Pharma companies are reaching out to academia in pre-competitive and collaborative settings. At the same time, smaller companies and CROs can quickly access varied and specialist skills and technology through grant consortia such as DRGNET.
The current U.K. and EU small and medium-size enterprise (SME) and other grant funding mechanisms have been specifically designed and implemented to build cooperation between academia and industry and within different industry sectors, regions and scales.
There has also been tremendous growth in smaller niche companies emerging from academic spin-out and bioincubator activities, along with a general increase in entrepreneurial spirit and funding opportunities for such businesses. Couple this with the greater willingness, desire and need for larger biotech and pharma companies to outsource and collaborate and you have the current SME/CRO/ biotech startup ecosystem.
The drive for new approaches reflects the fact that early drug discovery has become too predictable, slow and conservative. It’s all about managing risk these days. Larger pharma companies are realizing the shortfalls of the traditional process, but not abandoning it entirely themselves. They either try to emulate the flexible biotech approach or side-step that model entirely and put together faster, smarter and more adventurous drug discovery projects by accessing a range of smaller specialist providers.
Q: How can Metrion benefit from its participation in the DRGNET consortium?
A: Metrion is a self-funded venture. We have to make hard choices between what sort of research and assay development we can carry out over the next few years. Gaining access to the support and knowledge of the DRGNET participants, as well as native hDRG tissue, has already accelerated our progress in developing new neuroscience and neurotoxicology applications. Our participation in DRGNET also helps to strengthen our existing and potential collaborations with stem cell and other reagent and service providers in the neuroscience field, greatly aiding our plans for future growth. Being able to demonstrate expertise in use of this rare human pain tissue resource will open up possibilities for additional grant applications, collaborations and drug discovery partnerships based on our staff’s extensive pharma background in pain research and drug development.
A big part of our future plans is to leverage our neuroscience expertise to develop and sell translational drug discovery assays and neurotoxicology screening services, alongside our existing cardiac safety testing offerings. Gaining access to hDRG tissue and clinical and neuroscience expertise is crucial as we—and the pharma and biotech industry in general—transition from the use of native animal tissue toward human stem cell-derived iPS neurons. Being able to validate human stem cell in vitro assays with data from native human tissue will ensure the robust detection of neurotoxicology issues for new drug candidates, as well as help progress neuroscience drug discovery and new pain treatments into the clinic.
This article was reprinted from Volume 20, Issue 45, of CWWeekly, a leading clinical research industry newsletter providing expanded analysis on breaking news, study leads, trial results and more. Subscribe »