AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot heralds new era of collaboration in Homerton College lecture
World's most advanced drug discovery robot will help speed up search for medicines in Cambridge he says
The world’s most advanced drug discovery robot will help AstraZeneca and its partners speed up the search for vital new medicines in Cambridge, the company’s chief executive said this week.
Heralding a new era of openness and collaboration between life science researchers, Pascal Soriot told how NiCoLA-B will be housed in the biopharmaceutical company’s new £500million global research and development centre, being built on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus.
“Developed with our scientists, it enables us to test up to 300,000 compounds a day, which is three times faster than previous drug discovery robots,” he told the audience at Homerton College.
“Our Open Innovation platform lets our partners, such as Cancer Research UK and the Medical Research Council, collaborate with us in our use of NiCoLA-B.
“This collaborative approach helps us to accelerate medicines research for the treatment of a range of diseases where there is a substantial unmet need.”
NiCoLA-B minimises wastage, uses soundwaves instead of pipettes to move tiny droplets and interacts with scientists wherever they are via a mobile app.
Mr Soriot, delivering the Kate Pretty Lecture as part of Homerton’s 250th anniversary celebrations, said it was just one example of how technology was creating new opportunities.
“Healthcare is undergoing a transformation, driven by data, computing power and smart techniques such as AI,” he said. “The life sciences sector is a key area, set to take advantage of this boom. For example, we are currently using machine learning to intelligently identify patterns in very large clinical data sets. The patterns can identify groups of patients who are more likely to have an increased benefit from a certain medicine.
“It can also identify what characteristics such as genes, or demographic measurements, define those patients.
“Big data and related techniques may represent huge opportunities, but we also need to navigate with due care and attention the ethical, legal, regulatory and scientific issues that go with them.”
Titled ‘What Science Can Do – The Cambridge Life Science Cluster at a Pivot Point’, Mr Soriot’s speech underscored the company’s commitment to collaboration – a word he used 12 times. Explaining the reason why AstraZeneca decided to bring its global HQ and R&D centre to Cambridge, he said the new site will “increase collaboration and sharing of ideas”.
The move will bring AstraZeneca scientists together with those at MedImmune, its global biologics research and development arm.
“But more than that, as a global bio-pharmaceutical business, we have an ambition to follow the science and push the boundaries of what is known today, to deliver innovative life-changing medicines, which transform patient care around the world. It’s hard to find a better place to carry out ground-breaking science than in Cambridge,” he said.
“We want to collaborate, operate in a porous environment where ideas can be shared. Our new R&D site at the CBC will minimise security – pharma companies are historically very secretive and have tight security – and we have designed our building so it is open to the external world, invites others to visit us and supports the creation of this porous environment.”
The approach is already bearing fruit. From less than 10 collaborations five years ago, AstraZeneca now has about 130 today across oncology, cardiovascular, renal and metabolic and respiratory disease.
It is working with other pharma companies, the LMB, Cancer Research UK and with the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, with the latter helping the company to explore machine learning and image analysis.
The company is also working with Bicycle Therapeutics towards treatments for respiratory, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, and is collaborating with Microsoft to develop a new cancer treatment modelling system.
“We believe that, by being here in Cambridge, we can collaborate with some of the best scientists in the world,” he said.
AstraZeneca recorded fewer than 10 publications in key scientific journals five years ago. Last year, it published 82.
The company also hopes to shape government investment in infrastructure, said Mr Soriot.
“We worked very hard to obtain the decision to build a new train station at the CBC (Cambridge Biomedical Campus),” he said. “This will simplify transport for the people who work on the campus but also for patients and visitors at the two hospitals. We all know how smooth the car traffic is in Cambridge so anything that can reduce the number of cars on the road is welcome.”
He added: “The railway between Oxford and Cambridge I think would be the most impactful development to support innovation as it will join two power houses of academic science.”
Pledging to create jobs and economic activity “with minimal impact on the environment”, the new building – which staff will begin occupying next year – has high standards of sustainability.
“We will, for instance, have the biggest bore hole system in the UK to heat and cold the building through ground-source heat pumps,” he said.
AstraZeneca has not been put off bringing its HQ to Cambridge by Brexit but Mr Soriot noted: “In a post-Brexit world we need to make sure we are working together to make the UK and Cambridge attractive to top talent from outside the UK.”
He concluded: “Our ultimate goal is to improve the lives of people. By developing new treatments for people suffering from diseases that cannot be cured today, by creating great jobs through economic development, by investing in the training and development of people. And also by creating a great culture of ‘boundarilessness’, great collaboration between academia, industry, entrepreneurs, financiers, government.
“Break down the barriers of mistrust and show the world that by trusting each other and working together we can improve the future of mankind.”
More by this authorPaul Brackley