Prof Tony Kouzarides on his aims for the new Milner Research Labs on Cambridge Biomedical Campus
Helping more drugs reach the clinic will be a key aim of the new Milner Research Labs in Cambridge, according to Tony Kouzarides.
The new labs are being housed in The Jeffrey Cheah Biomedical Centre on Cambridge Biomedical Campus and form part of the Milner Therapeutics Institute, established by Prof Kouzarides with biotech entrepreneur Jonathan Milner.
The pair, who also co-founded Cambridge life science research tools company Abcam, created the institute in 2015 to bridge the gap between academia and research.
The institute is part of the University of Cambridge and acts a global therapeutics alliance, bringing together 74 affiliated organisations worldwide.
“We broker collaborations and get the funding for research that ends up in all sorts of departments and institutions in Cambridge,” director Prof Kouzarides explains to the Cambridge Independent. “That’s what we’ve been doing for the last three years and is still part of our mission.”
The Milner Research Labs, built with money donated by Dr Milner and due to open in the next month, represents the first dedicated physical space for the institute.
It will be home to specialist research centres, academics, companies and an accelerator programme.
“We have an artificial intelligence, machine learning and computational biology unit that is ongoing and has collaborations with companies and charities, developing new ways of discovering drug targets, including for cancer,” says Prof Kouzarides.
“There will be a phenotypic screening section – with robotic analysis of phenotypes, for example, for the viability of cells.
“Different disease models will come in from academics in Cambridge, to help towards identification of targets for small molecules, primarily for cancer but also other diseases.
“We will have Cambridge academics and new groups with disease models of cancer, and biotech companies that have a more therapeutic outlook and fit into our mission.
“Finally, there will be an accelerator for very early companies. It will give access to academics who want to set up a company, giving them money, mentorship and the ability to do research in the Research Labs, to get them to the point where we provide them with venture capitalists to pitch to.”
The labs will put academia and industry side-by-side, with the aim of ensuring cutting-edge research is geared towards an end product that can help patients.
“It’s partly our mission to fill that gap – to convince academics that directing their research towards therapies is something they should do, because they can. Ethically, they should be doing that – that’s my view and it’s one I’d like to make clear to academics,” says Prof Kouzarides, who will retain his own research facilities in The Gurdon Institute in Cambridge once the Research Labs open, continuing his work on epigenetic modifications and cancer.
“It also gives potential for them to be connected to pharma companies and understand what they want to do,” adds Prof Kouzarides. “There is currently a divide, with some academics not being aware of what pharma companies are about.”
Epitomising this aim of bringing academia and industry closer together, the Research Labs will be the home of the multi-million pound Functional Genomics Centre, as reported in December.
A collaboration between AstraZeneca and Cancer Research UK, it will deploy CRISPR.
gene-editing technology to help speed up the tortuous process of drug discovery. The Jeffrey Cheah Biomedical Centre – previously referred to as Project Capella – building is next door to CRUK’s Cambridge Institute, and its director, Prof Greg Hannon, will head up the Functional Genomics Centre. They lie a few minutes walk from the new £500million-plus global HQ and R&D centre being built for AstraZeneca on Cambridge Biomedical Campus.
“One of our important missions is not necessarily to generate drugs through the research, although ideally we would, but to lower the attrition of making a drug,” says Prof Kouzarides, a professor of cancer biology at the University of Cambridge.
Only a fraction of drug candidates ever make it into a clinic, with many failing because they prove ineffective in human trials, or suffer from toxicity issues.
“The problem is that pharma companies fail most of the time. We would like to lower the failure rate,” explains Prof Kouzarides.
“We want to say ‘This is the target to use for your drug’. You’ll know it quickly, so you don’t waste money, and we’ll get more drugs in the clinic.
“We want to push as many drugs towards the clinic as possible. Pushing is a very important part of the process. Pharma will deliver – we don’t have control of that, but we can help them to fail less, which will ultimately lead to more new medicines for patients.”
Among the tools in the Research Labs will be artificial intelligence, which can help to narrow down targets for new drugs but also spot opportunities to repurpose medicines.
“AI is a completely new area and one that I think will be very fruitful for identifying new targets,” suggests Prof Kouzarides, who is a world leader in the field of chromatin modification and its roles in transcriptional control and cancer. “When you want to find a drug target for cancer, but then probe another disease area with AI, you may find there are some targets in common.
“If you approach it in a more holistic way, you might be able to reposition the drug that already exists for cancer to other therapeutic areas. So I think there is a lot of value in approaching this as an exercise in finding targets for different diseases.”
For Prof Kouzarides, the Research Labs represent an exciting stage in the development of the Milner Therapeutics Institute.
“I’m really committed towards this. I felt this was necessary as a concept. It’s something unique and should be applicable to other institutions. This is partly the reason we have a global therapeutic alliance – I’m trying to convince other institutions that one of these institutes is what they all need,” he says.
The Milner Therapeutics Institute: A global therapeutics alliance
The Milner Therapeutics Institute features a consortium, active since June 2015, which brings together the University of Cambridge, the Wellcome Sanger Institute and the Barbaham Institute with pharmaceutical companies – Astex, AstraZeneca, Elysium, Ferring, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer and Shionogi.
They have signed a research agreement “to facilitate the speedy exchange of reagents and information and underpin research collaborations leading to publications”.
It means researchers can potentially access therapeutic agents, like small molecules and antibodies, being developed by the companies for testing.
The companies have also set aside funding for collaborative research projects between members.
One of the first was a partnership between AstraZeneca and Professor Carlos Caldas’ group at the University of Cambridge, which has been investigating how sub-types of breast cancer respond to different treatments.
Another project between Cambridge Science Park-based Astex and Dr Simon Cook at the Babraham Institute has been exploring modulators of the ERK/MAPK pathway in cell lines and their impact on inhibiting the growth of cancer cells.
Meanwhile, the institute’s affiliated companies programme has been running since March 2016 and is designed to facilitate interactions between businesses and academic, pharmaceutical or biotechnology partners. It now features 48 companies, including Abcam, Cambridge Epigenetix, DefiniGEN, Exonate, Phoremost and Storm Therapeutics.
The affiliated institutions programme, launched in October 2017, includes 14 academic institutions outside Cambridge, who gain access and links to the Milner Therapeutic alliance.
They include Johns Hopkins University and Medicine in the US, the Yonsei University College of Medicine in South Korea and The Institute of Cancer Research in London.
Booking for the Milner Therapeutics Symposium on June 25, 2019 is now open.
Confirmed speakers include Sara-Jane Dunn, Nancy Rothwell, Greg Hannon, Ed Bullmore, Salvador Aznar-Benitah, Marcel van Duin, Rebecca Fitzgerald, Gillian Griffiths, Christian Frezza, Frank McCaughan, Andres Floto, Evan Reid, Nick Morrell, Sanjay Sinha, Jeff Dalley, Zoe Kourtzi, Leo Sánchez Busó, George Malliaras, Florian Merkle, Maria Spillantini and Clemence Blouet.