Expanded web feature: Mark Christie - Q&A
Mark Christie has taken on BBSRC's first Industrial Impact Fellowship. Business reports on his first few months on the job.
The Industrial Impact Fellowship is new. How are you tackling the role?
My major focus is the BBSRC-funded aspect of what we do - in vivo research - which is quite a broad remit to be honest. Overall, I think the role is to be an introducer between the expertise at the Centre for Integrative Biology (CIB) at King's College where I'm based, and the industry sector that hasn't been properly supported, I think, by academic collaborations.
Access to in vivo models [animals] is one element; access to scientific expertise, to technologies, knowledge transfer, and moving people between academia and the biotech sector are important parts of this fellowship.
You are based at CIB. What was the rationale behind its creation in 2007?
The basis for CIB was a recognition that in vivo skills were a declining skill in the UK workforce. Since the late 90s there has been a lot of debate at academic and Research Council levels.
There are at least three reasons why in vivo skills need to continue in the UK: One, to feed industry; two, to continue in vivo research in an academic environment; and three to train people in that skill set. As a result, co-funded centres were established for integrative mammalian biology: one at King's, one at Imperial, one in the Manchester-Liverpool cluster and one in the Glasgow-Strathclyde cluster. The remit is to build and sustain expertise in in vivo pharmacology, or integrative biomedicine as we call it at King's.
Understanding mammalian biology is important to drug discovery. Image: iStockphoto
And what does CIB offer to industry that they don't already have?
What we can offer at CIB is background expertise. We understand the nuances of the models, how different strains respond to adjuvants, we know of dosage regimes, and extending read outs like the histology of reactions. It's the extra level of detail and information that an academic group can provide with comparison to a CRO [contract research organisation].
What academic-industry links have you established so far?
What I've been able to do so far is make a bit of noise and introduce myself at meetings like the London Biotechnology Network and give them an overview of the kinds of skills that are available at CIB; in vivo skills in areas such as drug discovery, cardiovascular medicine and endocrinology, and basically to start to scope out the business models to use between industry partners and academia at King's College.
I have had some interest from one biotech company that is involved with an immune model. They are struggling to place work with contract research organisations because it is reasonably specialist. We have the expertise here.
The next step is to increase presence particularly amongst biotech partners and that's a major part of my remit here. The centre already has some interactions with Big Pharma, but there are over 700 biotech companies in the UK and we need to work with them too.
The Industrial Impact Fellowships (IIFs) aim to enhance the impact of BBSRC-funded research and encourage collaboration and partnership between academic and industrial sectors.
The scheme enables highly skilled research and technology leaders to transfer their skills, experience and contacts from industrial pharmaceutical, biotechnology, food and drink, engineering and IT sectors to institutes or academic departments with significant BBSRC-funded research programmes.
An individual's skills and experience to enhance research impact are seen as more important than the individual's sector.
Why did you apply for the fellowship?
Sue Brain, the head of CIB, drew my attention to BBSRC's call. And it struck me as an ideal way to work in academia but use my industry skills and contacts. The job is part time and I'm reasonably familiar with the issues that Sue and the principal investigators from the CIB have to deal with on regular basis.
And I bring my background in drug discovery to the party so I can help out by sharing my understanding of what a typical in vivo model needs to generate from an industry point of view, the kind of quality standards that are required, and the type of people that we need to talk to if we need specialist expertise.
What was your last role?
My last role was as deputy site director for UCB-Celltech. But in July 2008 they made the business decision to close the site down so the last thing I did for that company was to close their site in Cambridge.
Post-UCB I looked around and didn't see anything that took my fancy. At the time, aged 47, I asked myself if another similar role was the right job for me, when the industry, especially Big Pharma, is in a state of churn: they are laying people off, contracting out research; in fact, they are starting to reinvent the model of research.
Can you elaborate on that?
They've moved on from an internalised research and development unit model, with huge research organisations and sites of 1500-2000 people, because that's proved to be relatively unproductive. So they've looked at the biotech model and it's been happening over a few years. They are asking themselves if a different model with smaller sites with more independence, more outward looking and collaborative approaches, joint ventures to projects, and if externalising research and outsourcing the risk to joint academic-industrial partnerships, particularly at the early stages, might be a better, more cost-effective way of discovering new drugs.
Why the need for change?
Business models in the pharmacology sector are changing. Image: iStockphotoThere is certain core business that pharma does extremely well such as turning small molecules into development candidates - they can do that with their eyes shut - but owning expertise in therapeutic areas at research level and moving those early projects in the right direction, relevant to the companies' business strategy, is more difficult to do. Research doesn't really allow you do to do that very readily and expertise in one area doesn't necessarily lead you to success in another.
So what they are looking to do now is a more menu-based approach to starting projects. They may start a collaboration with a number of academic groups, biotech spin-outs, and might part invest in those companies. If progress looks promising then move to next stage and adopt it into their portfolio and change their collaboration approach with them. It allows them to discard the elements that haven't proceeded as well. So they've moved from menu-of-the-day approach to an a la carte approach to research. I think it's still changing though.
Open pipeline - is that the right word for this approach?
I think that open pipeline is a good way of putting it. I think that companies that are going to succeed in this environment are ones that can collaborate well. Historically, companies have been very secretive, even with other companies that could take them forward, tending to do everything in-house which is a cost-ineffective way of doing it. For example, in setting up my multiple sclerosis research group in Cambridge, it took us between 3-5 years to become industry competitive. If you make that investment then you don't want to be changing it in a short time scale, or if you do you want someone else to be taking that risk.
This role is part time. What else do you do?
When I left UCB-Celltech I set up my consultancy business, Akranim - it's the letters my first two names, Mark and Ian, muddled around on a Scrabble board by me and my wife over a bottle of wine. As a part of consultancy business I provide drug discovery, pre-clinical project leadership and in vivo expertise to biotech companies, and although it came about pretty much by accident it is going pretty well now. That's the other half of my life, the other half from the fellowship.
Do you have a battle plan for your fellowship activities?
Yes. Year one: get to know everyone. Years two and three: work on our marketing. Year four: bring the money in. That's the battle plan.
Going forward one area I'd like us to exploit is consultancy. Very often data comes back into the biotech sector and that has to be interpreted internally by that organisation, so it makes sense for principal investigators and researchers to extend their collaboration beyond the practical through to consultancy and interpretation of data. I think that's a valuable product, increasing the results and analysis generated by a third party CRO.
Have you found any sticking points or barriers?
The first sticking point is visibility. The biotech sector consists of a lot of companies, and they are rapidly changing, coming and going, and only require our kinds of expertise for short periods in their life span. How we can most effectively work with that sector is important - penetrating that sector in a broader way rather than just using my contacts.
The second challenge is what is of value to industry biotech is not necessarily of value to an academic researcher. The key is to find ways of collaborating that has value to both parties. I know that sounds like an obvious thing to say but that is going to become an important part of my battle plan.
We have to challenge the traditional pharma or traditional academic industry collaboration model which tends to be long term, fairly hands off from an industry point of view. I think we need to do different things. We need to think about moving staff from industry into the academic space, changing the way we write grants in academia such that it builds in capacity to conduct shorter term work, and change what academia expects from industry particularly in the biotech sector. Traditional and historically, the pharmaceutical sector has provided fairly consistent hands-off funding to favoured academic researchers. The requirements will not be the same from biotech.
So you're saying that pharma needs to be more like biotech?
No, I think that academia needs to understand that biotech is different from pharma. I think pharma will change but fundamentally they will still have more money and longer time scales. That's the key difference. Biotech has less money and shorter time scales; in some respects from an academic point of view that's a nuisance, but in other respects it's a real positive because when they want something they want it now and they won't spend too much time messing around in the negotiating stage because they are burning money - they need to know now. Most biotech companies are less than 15 people, so if they want expertise in Parkinson's they are that much more likely to be open-minded to outsourcing that expertise.
What have been your own personal research highlights?
I did some work with fenoldopam, a dopamine agonist, in conscious dogs. If you were to ask me my proudest publication that's it.
Because I sat for hours in a quiet room with those dogs and it was my first venture into the relationship between blood levels and the pharmacodynamic effects of a compound and those relationships have intrigued me ever since.
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