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A test tube hovering over a rack filled with more test tubes. © Wellcome Images / UK Biobank
Universities and industry have complementary skills and resources when it comes to drug development for Alzheimer's disease

Universities don’t make drugs – that’s the job of the pharmaceutical companies. There are other typical divides across academia and industry too: the expertise is different, the resources are different and the ways of working are different. But that’s no reason not to work together – in fact it’s precisely why we need to. Dr Iain Chessell heads the neuroscience therapy area in AstraZeneca, one of DPUK’s industry partners.

All the diseases that we work on have no cure, and no medicines affect their progression either. I started working on Alzheimer’s disease during my PhD, and seeing patients affected by the disease has motivated me, then and now, to do something about it. Alzheimer's disease is a long-term illness where symptoms only appear once damaging protein deposits are well established in the brain. This presents the wider drug development community with a particular challenge.

We need to intervene at a stage of the disease before these proteins have accumulated to such an extent that their effects cannot be halted. How can we intervene early enough to prevent the deposition in the first place? At the moment this would be very difficult. Studies in dementia are long and expensive, needing hundreds of patients and at least two years of study; the lack of success so far has meant that a few companies have decided not to continue investing in Alzheimer’s disease studies. Individual industry companies cannot do it alone.

What collaboration looks like

In DPUK the drug development community works in what is a fairly unique pre-competitive environment to tackle the challenges that we face. DPUK brought me and my counterparts in companies and universities all to the table and enabled us to pool our expertise. Together we’re coming up with bigger, braver ideas which a single company working in this field wouldn’t have pursued working alone.

The New Therapeutics in Alzheimer’s Disease (NTAD) study is one example of this. It’s an exciting experimental medicine (EM) study arising from the Synaptic Health Network that DPUK established. Members of the core group come from AstraZeneca, Janssen and Lilly, and Cardiff and Cambridge universities. Thanks to examples of collaborative working like this, we’re able to develop studies that benefit from specific expertise in particular techniques that different companies offer and, in the future, from cohort resources that might previously have been easily available only to academics. NTAD will employ magnetoencephalography (MEG) to identify reliable, sensitive and tractable signs of abnormal brain changes that we believe is occurring early in Alzheimer’s disease. Our aim is to develop a fit-for-purpose set of biological markers of change (‘biomarkers’) based around MEG that can be used in next generation EM studies to test novel therapeutic interventions aimed at halting the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to financial support for NTAD, AstraZeneca will provide significant expertise in clinical drug development spanning clinical operations, translational sciences, experimental medicine, biomarkers and biostatistics. We’re also benefiting from other partners’ expertise in MEG and MEG protocols.

I work with some brilliant people who have vast experience in discovering new potential medicines. We’re working to figure out whether they will work in patients, ultimately to make them available as therapies that can be prescribed by doctors.

Within the neuroscience group at AstraZeneca, we work extensively with collaborators in academia and have many PhD students and post-docs in labs all around the world. We see our colleagues in academia exploring new areas of science, with levels of investment that industry simply can’t match. Breaking science often comes from academic research, and partnering and collaborating with the best academic centres in the world gives us the opportunity to turn the fundamental science into life-changing medicines. Collaboration between industry and academia is critical to success.