“There has never been a more exciting time for our industry”, said Stephen Minger as he addressed a packed audience at the BIA Annual Lecture at Bloomberg’s headquarters in London recently.” The next 25 years are set to be a dynamic chapter and one which promises to revolutionise the way we treat some of the most challenging diseases of our time”.
When you look back 25 years, there are many advances which we take for granted now, that simply didn’t exist or were in the earliest stages of development. Explained Stephen:
“In 1989 there was no cell therapy. The first commercial therapeutic monoclonal antibody was only in the initial stages of being developed, and the way that we diagnosed disease, developed drugs or treated conditions was very different. Fast forward 25 years and there has been a complete shift away from mass market medicine and small molecules to the use of biologics, personalized medicine and cell therapy.”
But what does the future hold? How are innovations in the biotech industry going to deliver advances that will transform our lives, the way we treat disease and the sector as a whole?
“There will be major developments in cell biology, drug discovery research and the sorts of drugs we will be developing, and this is going to call for a different approach towards multi and interdisciplinary teams rather than working in the old traditional silos of biology, physics and chemistry,” Stephen explained. ’ We will be making greater use of computing and data right across our field from drug discovery research to better management of disease.”
He went on to discuss three principal areas where major innovations can be expected.
Firstly, ‘Precision Medicine’ offers new ways of diagnosing and treating disease, moving away from a “one size fits all approach’ to treatment, to one that is tailored to suit the needs of different individual patients.
Not that long ago – and this holds true for many diseases – breast cancer was regarded as one disease, and patients might have been diagnosed and then given a therapy that might only work in 10% of the population.
Today what was once thought of as ‘one disease’ can now be categorised into many different types, each with a different genetic profile and prognoses, each needing slightly different treatment approaches. By prescribing a treatment that really works for their condition it is possible to avoid difficult and undesirable side effects and create a better outcome for the patient.
“Of course, these advances bring their own challenges” said Stephen Minger. “ In particular, how to make these new tailored treatments and the molecules needed. Data handling can also be problematic and algorithms aren’t necessarily the answer. Instead we will need to go to machine based learning to be able to handle this wealth of data. ”
This also has implications for skills: “The young people coming into the biotechnology sector are going to need a different set of skills – genetics, understanding of the regulatory environment, bioinformatics and engineering.”
Big Data, explained Stephen, is going to have a huge impact.
In the clinical sphere, this is already helping to bring better care to people. For example when it comes to diabetes care in Scotland, the use of IT in an integrated way has resulted in a huge reduction in amputations and diabetes associated sight problems which has enormous repercussions in terms of hospital care, independence for individuals and improved quality of life for families.
However it is ‘Cell Therapy’ which is going to enable some of the biggest advances in the way we treat patients for many different diseases. “This is a very active research area in the UK and worldwide. Here in the UK, the government has been quite forward looking by investing in and encouraging the development of this area with initiatives such as the Cell Therapy Catapult. There are a number of on-going clinical trials for conditions such as macular degeneration, stroke, heart disease and spinal cord injury and GE has a research laboratory in Cardiff which is dedicated to the development of new technologies for cell therapy.”
Another type of cell therapy is cellular immunotherapy which uses the body’s own immune cells to fight against disease.
A good example where there is very clear evidence of the benefits is the work being done at the National Cancer Institute for the treatment of metastatic melanoma.
However, looking to the future, while the science itself and the trials are all very promising, how we make these new cell therapies a clinical reality is another matter.
Explained Stephen: “Take heart cells for the treatment of heart failure in patients. At the moment, while it’s at the small clinical trial stage – to treat perhaps 20 patients at a time – it’s manageable. But imagine trying to treat the 200,000 people in London with heart failure? The challenge is how to scale up the culture of cells for these people with all of the necessary quality control standards and then to transport and deliver the cells to the patients in an effective way.”
We live in exciting times and there is no doubt that the next quarter of a century is going to yield some amazing breakthroughs. The biotechnology industry is maturing, but it is going to take some of the best brains in tissue science, regulation, health economics, surface chemistry, cell biology, bio manufacturing and logistics, to work collaboratively together to ensure that it is able to realize its full potential.