Researchers at work in a Cancer Research UK laboratory

You may recognise Cancer Research UK for its famous Race for Life events that get you up early on a chilly Saturday morning, or for its treasure-trove charity shops, full of second-hand goodies.

But what you may not know is that, as well as funding cancer research, we also work with industry and academia to develop promising ideas and turn them into successful cancer therapeutics, vaccines, diagnostics and technologies for patients. And the profits we make from these developments gets ploughed straight back into lifesaving research.

Last year alone, Cancer Research UK reinvested a staggering £36.4 million generated from our commercialisation activities back into life-saving cancer research, despite the impact that pandemic was having on the wider UK economy.

But the story goes far beyond the last year. The commercial arm of the charity itself has been involved in helping to bring 11 life-saving cancer drugs to market.

Now, in our 20th Anniversary year, we are announcing a bold new approach to drug discovery and development, turbocharging this great British success story via the creation of Cancer Research Horizons.

We want to take cutting edge discoveries and innovations out of the lab and transform them into cancer beating treatments, devices and diagnostics. But we can’t do this alone, we will need to work with researchers, industry and investors to bring forward the day when all cancers are eliminated. Cancer Research Horizons will bring our innovation capabilities into one place, and our ambition over the coming years is to become the partner of choice for translating scientific breakthroughs that will bring maximum patient benefit.

Hamish Ryder, Chief Executive Officer of Therapeutic Innovation, Cancer Research Horizons

Why does a charity need to commercialise its research?

“We are unlike a lot of other charities because the sheer scale of research we’re funding means that we can justify having a dedicated commercialisation unit,” says Tony Hickson, our chief business officer.

“And the reason for setting up the commercial arm of the charity, a few decades ago, was to maximise the chance of all this research funding being translated into real benefits for patients.”

The charity is currently the second biggest licensor of cancer research treatments globally.

The commercial arm of the charity has played an instrumental role in forming over 60 spin-out companies borne out of our pioneering research. Of the 11 drugs we have helped on their journey to the market, over 6 million doses have been given to patients worldwide.

For example, you may have heard of abiraterone, a hormone therapy drug that has transformed the way we treat prostate cancer, which works by stopping the production of testosterone. ‘The discovery was made by a number of our scientists based at The Institute of Cancer Research, London (ICR), and our commercial partnerships team helped bring the drug to market, which is now available within the NHS.

Or you may be familiar with olaparib, used to treat ovarian, fallopian tube and peritoneal cancer, which was also developed at the ICR, backed by us, and commercialised as Lynparza® and has been used to treat over 30,000 patients.

However, along with the common, or well-known drugs that are developed, there are many discoveries that remain in the lab. Some of this research is still in its early stages or has limited information around its potential so it’s sometimes deemed too risky to be picked up by industry partners. Or the discovery may address niche markets that are too small to justify investing in at an early stage.

“We are very interested in projects that are either based on innovative science, or ideas that fly in the face of current thinking,” says Hickson.

Without the investment to develop these discoveries further and bring them to a point where investors or industry partners would be prepared take a chance on these drugs, many innovative ideas with great potential either never leave the lab or take too long to come to fruition.

“As a result, it means that some of the ideas we are trying to progress can challenge the status quo, or appear quite risky. But that’s the whole point. The point of the charity having a commercial development arm is to avoid just taking on the ‘me too’ approaches being pursued by many others and to find new approaches to treat or detect cancer.”

So, how do we do we currently commercialise our research?

In order to push the latest developments in cancer research into market so that they can be delivered to patients, we work with partners across the life science industry.

These partners range all the way from small biotech or diagnostic companies to giant, multinational pharmaceutical companies. We also work with investors and venture capitalists who invest in new start-ups, and who help to provide the funds for early-stage companies to get them off the ground, or to expand and grow.

Another mechanism we deploy to support commercialisation is the formation of specialised partnerships that focus on one particular area of cancer research, such as our CRUK-AstraZeneca Antibody Alliance. This partnership brings together our cancer biology expertise with the world-class antibody engineering technology of AstraZeneca, to support projects investigating antibody discovery.

Working in this way means that we can bring in the resources and expertise of the pharmaceutical industry from the outset ensuring that any product that is developed is more likely to be successful in the clinic, and therefore by extension, reach patients, from the get-go.

Alongside the partnership approach, Cancer Research Horizons will continue to provide various funding awards, such as our new Therapeutic Catalyst scheme, which is available for researchers to apply to a new drug discovery project. This award aims to accelerate the translation of laboratory discoveries into novel cancer therapeutics.

“But it’s important to note that we’re not just providing funding,” says Hickson, “we’re also bringing industrial rigour and pharmaceutical grade drug discovery expertise alongside it.”

How will Cancer Research Horizons improve things?

Although our commercialisation of research works very well, we know we can do better.

Cancer Research Horizons will bring under one ‘umbrella’ Cancer Research UK’s established drug discovery laboratories, its network of world-class cancer researchers, its innovative technology platforms, and its clinical expertise, offering a unique R&D portfolio to potential industry partners.

Under Horizons, industry partners will gain access to Cancer Research UK’s extensive network of 4,000 world-leading cancer researchers and a discovery research portfolio benefitting from £400m of annual funding.

Horizons will also provide support to academics in terms of research commercialisation support, intellectual property advice, and entrepreneurial programmes for them to enrol in.

We will build on our impressive track-record of innovative drug development, but will have an increased focus on the tougher, more profound challenges that can lead to true innovation.

By continuing to be bold and taking on projects that industry may not always be interested in, Cancer Research Horizons aims to expand the range and scope of drugs being developed and accelerate the pace at which they reach patients.

Ultimately, we believe that by bringing together a critical mass of researchers with our translational and commercial expertise, we can get more innovative science translated into breakthrough tests and treatments faster for people affected by cancer.

“At Cancer Research UK we believe not enough ideas make it from the lab to patients in the clinic. So, we’re changing our approach to drug discovery and commercialisation with the launch of Cancer Research Horizons, ensuring that the research we fund has the best chance of reaching patients,” says Michelle Mitchell, our chief executive.

“We believe that by bringing together a critical mass of researchers with our translational and commercial expertise it will unlock new potential so that breakthrough treatments, tools and diagnostics reach patients sooner.”


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