The changing landscape of drug discovery and UK academia

There are currently at least 24 open-access drug discovery facilities operating in UK, 20 of which are hosted by academic institutions1. Drug research is changing, from how it is done to where and who is doing it. In the last decades the search for new medicine has been largely done by pharmaceutical companies using mostly target-centric approaches2. The pharma research and development (R&D) productivity has been far from what was expected and it is very common to read about ‘crucial challenge’, ‘plummeting’, at minimum ‘difficult’ when analysts, business heads and researchers talk about drug R&D. Pharma is consequently regrouping and simultaneously the academic drug discovery landscape is evolving.

How is pharma adjusting itself? Companies have shifted from highly diverse to a few core therapeutic areas (closing many of their research sites) and have moved away from conducting early stage preclinical research in house. In search for boosting innovation they also seem to follow a Silicon Valley model whereby they geographically cluster and this at sites in close proximity of renowned academic institutions (as is the case for Boston area in US in the vicinity of Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Cambridge Science Park in UK close to the Oxford/Cambridge/London, with the so-called ‘golden triangle’ universities). More focus, outsourcing to Contract Research Organizations (CROs) and academia, knowledge and talent transfer and high tech access is what big pharma is looking after in an effort to boost its not-as-expected R&D productivity and innovation. Big pharma adapts its business model to become a ‘network integrator’ of drug discovery science rather than the ‘intellectual lead’3.

As the big companies diminish their internal research, drug discovery capabilities are currently built in academic institutions across UK. Looking at the map (see UK Drug Discovery Consortium website & ref. 1) 7 drug discovery academic/not-for-profit facilities are in Scotland, condensed at Dundee/Glasgow/Edinburgh universities, one in Northern Ireland in Belfast, 9 at universities in the north of England with Universities of Leeds and Sheffield each with 3 of such facilities, 6 at London/Cambridge/Oxford and the Sussex Drug Discovery Centre in south at University of Sussex (a 45 strong team, where the author of this blog is working). Their main research focus overlaps largely the industry one in oncology, infectious diseases and neurology. Many of the groups work however on innovative targets, with almost half based on new discoveries, followed by drug targets with significant preclinical validation (35%)4. These facilities have industry standard screening platforms. Drug discovery professionals, including heads of pharmaceutical industrial research have been brought in to combine academic and industrial expertise. These groups have successfully put together the necessary infrastructure and people, being able to run multiple high-throughput screens. 19 of these facilities report being able to undertake medicinal chemistry follow-up. The source of funding is evolving with the majority being provided by UK government, charitable organizations and universities themselves. Strategic alliances between academia, government and pharma have also formed and established facilities as the National Phenotypic Screening Centre or the European Screening Centre. Traditional academic goals are also evolving with The Research Excellence Framework (REF) evaluation of the performance of UK academic institutions including now taking new compounds into the clinic and creating intellectual property.

Despite challenges4, prospects are looking upbeat for drug discovery in academia. And wonderful things happen like the encouraging results obtained by teams at University College of London in collaboration with Great Ormond Children Hospital and biotech company Cellectis in treating leukaemia ( or the three new drugs discovered at University of Cardiff that are now in advanced clinical trials for pancreatic and ovarian cancer, shingles and breast and colon cancer.

Blog written by Oana Popa


  1. Shanks, E., Ketteler, R. and Ebner, D. ‘Academic drug discovery within the United Kingdom: a reassessment’. Nature Reviews Drug Discovery 14: 510 (2015)
  2. Swinney, D.C. & Anthony, J. How were new medicines discovered? Nature Reviews Drug Discovery 10: 507-519 (2011)
  3. Rafolsa, I. et al. Big Pharma, little science? : A bibliometric perspective on Big Pharma’s R&D decline Technological forecasting and social change 81: 22-38 (2014)
  4. Tralau-Stewart, C., Low, C.M.R. & Marlin, N. UK academic drug discovery. Nature Reviews Drug Discovery 13:15-16 (2014)


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