Overview of trends in UK drug discovery


A recent paper in Nature Reviews Drug Discovery from Cathy Talau-Stewart & Caroline Low (formerly of the Imperial Drug Discovery Centre) and Nicola Marlin (Thomson Reuters) attempts to survey the current trends in the UK for academic drug discovery. Following on from a similar article by Stephen Frye in 2011, the data presented captures the therapeutic areas, business models, size/scope and staff experience level across the various UK institutions. Interestingly, most of the groups that responded to the survey (details contained in the supplementary information available on line) were from ‘traditional’ academic groups – implying that academics were directing their own research increasingly towards drug discovery funding sources – rather than bespoke drug discovery centres. This is reflected in the relatively low levels of industry experience within these academic groups, with only 40% of the lead directors having at least 5 years’ industrial experience.
In terms of capabilities, as expected, the majority of groups lacked the typical infrastructure found in ‘big pharma’ discovery teams – i.e. DMPK and HTS facilities – and reflecting the origin of most of the groups, the main driver for research was still papers and student training.
Interestingly, the therapeutic areas investigated are broadly the same as those in the US – with cancer & infectious disease dominating – presumably reflecting both target tractability and funding accessibility.
The most striking observation in the article is around funding, for which stark differences emerge between the UK and US environments. In the US, the government funds a significantly larger proportion of drug discovery, whilst EU and industry funding are still relatively minor components of UK funding.
The article takes an overall positive tone regarding the future opportunities presented, particularly if more coordinated efforts are made to support this emerging sector, however clear funding gaps exist coupled with an appropriate approach to the inherent risks of drug discovery and their incompatibility with some standard academic metrics.
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