Part of what makes Biotech such an exciting field for investment is the newness of the technologies involved. Researchers are coming up with novel solutions to old problems in healthcare and agriculture at an amazing rate.
A lot of the cutting-edge biotech research in the UK is done in the so-called ‘Golden Triangle’, of London, Oxford and Cambridge. These cities contain four of the world’s top eight medical schools: Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial and UCL. Their research efforts are powered by an annual income of £1.4bn.
It is little wonder that the world’s big biotechnology companies watch these universities with keen interest, ready to pounce on any breakthrough that could be the seed of a business. Many of those companies have made the strategic decision to work with outside research institutions rather than undertake the expensive and risky task of developing their own new products.
There has never been a better time to be a university boffin with an eye for the main chance.
Investors who wish to know what lies ahead need to keep a careful eye on university campuses. Luckily, I’ve done that on your behalf! In the last fortnight, both Oxford and Cambridge have hosted their own science festivals, and I have been to a number of events at both, talking to professors and researchers about upcoming discoveries in healthcare.
This article is about what’s going on at those universities, two of Britain’s greatest centres of Biotech research. I listened and spoke to some of the leading experts in their fields and learned a few things I never knew before…
UK government and universities really want biotech to grow
To the delight of the Government, always keen to support knowledge-based industries, the local economies of Oxford and Cambridge are booming. Money has been pouring in. According to a new survey by Peel Hunt, $2.9bn was invested in the UK’s Life Sciences sector last year with companies in the Golden Triangle grabbing over half of venture financing.
So many of Britain’s most important medical and biological research centres are located in these two cities. World famous centres include Cambridge’s Sanger Institute, named after Sir Frederick Sanger who first found a way of sequencing DNA. Now called the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, it played a leading role in the Human Genome Project back in 2003. Today it is leading the UK Government’s 100,000 genomes project, which is seeking to unearth genetic clues to disease.
Another renowned centre in Cambridge is the Babraham Institute, founded after the War to investigate animal physiology with the aim of improving food production. Today it studies cell and molecular biology to try to understand the process of ageing. Professor Wolf Reik is an expert in epigenetics, those factors that determine gene expression. Last year AstraZeneca moved its UK research centre to Cambridge, where it joins Gilead, Arm Holdings, Microsoft and Google and a host of other multinational companies all keen to tap into the expertise of the university.
Cambridge also has the world famous Addenbrooke’s Hospital, while my home city of Oxford has the John Radcliffe as well the Churchill and the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre. Many medics divide their time between seeing patients, doing research, publishing papers and running trials. Some then become involved with the hundreds of spin-out companies found in locations like the Cambridge Science Park or Milton Park to the south of Oxford. These business parks are expanding all the time – Cambridge is to build the new Sir John Bradfield Centre, funded by Trinity College, while Milton Park is embarking upon a 10-year, £250m expansion plan.
Biotech is clearly attracting plenty of capital, but where is this money going?
During the science festivals some themes kept on recurring, genetics foremost amongst them. Take the case of Fabrice Muamba. Professor Hugh Watkins is a specialist in Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM), the condition that so nearly proved fatal for footballer Fabrice Muamba. Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy is a thickening of the heart muscle; it can go unnoticed, but is potentially a killer. Now, thanks to the work of Professor Watkins, we know that this is a genetic condition that is inherited by humans and, for that matter, by cats. Any child of someone with HCM has a 50% chance of inheriting the condition.
DNA instructs the creation of proteins within cells. Once we know the DNA sequence that is the root cause of HCM we can use this blueprint to create proteins in the laboratory. We can then test drugs against these proteins, until we find one that works. Thanks to these breakthroughs Professor Watkins is confident that we can both identify those at risk of Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy, and find a drug that will protect them against it.
This is a great example of the new world of molecular medicine, in which we do not simply find drugs through screening programmes that are just a huge exercise in trial and error. Instead we actually find out what is going wrong, right from the very origin of the disease, plot the ‘pathway’ from the DNA through the cell and devise drugs precisely to fix the problem.
Smart Leukaemia drug Gleevec is just one example of ‘Golden Triangle’ success
Another fascinating talk was delivered by Professor Paresh Vyas who has a particular interest in leukaemia. Every day, our bodies produce ten billion new blood cells, and each of these has three billion DNA base pairs which should be copied correctly. As Professor Vyas said, the surprising thing is not that this process sometimes goes wrong, but that it usually goes right. However, sooner or later, mutations will appear in the DNA of these new blood cells; that is the root cause of leukaemia.
Unlike most other cancers leukaemia often affects young people. Until relatively recently, a leukaemia diagnosis was a death sentence. Thanks to the work of E. Donnall Thomas, who won the Nobel Prize in 1990, this is no longer the case. Thomas found that an injection of bone marrow cells into the bloodstream could repopulate the bone marrow, inducing it to produce even more blood cells. A bone marrow transplant became the standard treatment for leukaemia, and was the first example of stem cell therapy.
Bone marrow transplants can be effective in young people, but the prognosis for the elderly people who contract leukaemia is not so good. The drug Gleevec, which targets an enzyme that allows cancer cells to grow, can be effective against chronic myeloid leukaemia but Professor Vyas now has high hopes for a new drug. At the Oxford Science Fair, he explained how it works:
Phagocytes are cells that go around our body hoovering up dead or unwanted cells or bacteria. They should eat up cancer cells, but the latter are smart and send out ‘don’t eat me’ signals. These are markers on the cell surface that prevent the phagocytes from locking on to them. Researchers at Stanford and Oxford’s Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine have now designed a new drug that blocks this ‘don’t eat me’ signal, thus preventing the cancer cells from repelling the phagocytes. This approach is an immunotherapy, meaning that it allows the cancer cells to be killed by the body’s own immune system.
We are now in the age of molecular medicine. Each of the cells in our body contains millions of molecules. These are controlled by the DNA that lies in the nucleus of each cell. The function of the cell depends upon the specific sequence of DNA – the gene – that is expressed within it. There can be flaws both in the DNA itself and in the ‘pathways’ that lead from the DNA to the cell’s functioning components.
This is, of course, terrifically complicated. Nonetheless we can now see what is going on. We can sequence DNA quickly and relatively cheaply, we can gather images of the body with unprecedented accuracy and definition, generating data that can be digitised and then analysed by superfast computers. Very rapidly we are learning about cells, both mature, functioning cells and about stem cells that are the raw material of regenerative medicine.
I am lucky enough to live in Oxford where the University’s Institute of Adult Education, the Oxford Biomedical Research Centre and the Oxford Biotechnology Network host a series of events that publicise the work of the University in the field of biotechnology. In fact I have signed up for a series of evening classes about the new approaches to cancer treatment! I enjoy being inside the biotech “bubble”. It’s an inspiring place to be.