The Weeks That Were – 10 December 2014

Having celebrated Thanksgiving with extended family members (with a nod to my British heritage we ate beef instead of turkey!), I have crammed a couple of weeks of news and observations into this edition.

Although one wonders why we don’t keep things simple with one Budget a year, the recent Autumn Statement was the last chance for George Osborne and the government to deliver key statements of intent ahead of next May’s General Election.  Amid highlighting their approach to growth and its continuation, there were positive announcements for the health and life sciences sector.  From 1st April 2015 R&D tax credits will increase for SMEs from the current 225% to 230% with the rate of above the line credit increasing from 10% to 11%.  There will also be an investment of £5.9 billion into UK research infrastructure over the next five years and new processes to make the administration of tax-advantaged venture capital schems more effective and straightforward.

Countering any feelings of euphoria, the UK’s Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee issued a report calling the UK to spend more than £20 billion a year on R&D to tackle decades of under-investment, citing gross spending on research only accounting for 1.7% of GDP against the 2.8% in the US and the more than 2% of GDP spent by both Germany and France.

On the financing front, Neil Woodford, the UK’s premier investor in the sector, has revealed further details of his biotech-focused fund which he has been talking up since he left Invesco Perpetual, with plans to create a $314 million fund focused on private biotechs.  He was also part of a group of prominent UK investors who recently backed a new round of financing in Cell Medica to the tune of $78 million to finance the company’s pipeline of oncology and infectious disease candidates.  AstraZeneca made a significant contribution to a $7.8 million fund for start-ups based at its former Alderley Edge site in Cheshire with BioCity managing the fund and doling out £50K to £250K equity investments.

On the IPO front, Midatech Pharma filed paperwork for an IPO on London’s AIM market with the nanomedicine firm aiming to raise $47 million and to buy Q Chip, a UK developer of a controlled-release technology.  Liverpool’s Evgen Pharma has mapped out a $31 million IPO on AIM to finance its work on a broccoli-derived treatment with applications in cancer and other diseases, while Quantum Pharma, which began life in a training college ‘clean room’, was set to become the biggest float on AIM this year in the sector.  Quantum is a manufacturer and supplier of unlicensed medicines and products for special medical needs for UK pharmacy chains.

23andMe has launched a pared-down version of its Personal Genome Service in the UK with a CE mark certification.  After its run-in with the FDA a year ago, the company is launching a localised version in the UK that is outside the FDA’s reach but in line with UK regulatory requirements.  The European regulatory environment for lab tests is generally seen as less challenging for diagnostics players.  The UK Department of Health seems satisfied that 23andMe has followed the principles put forth by the Human Genetics Commission in 2010 on DTC genetic testing.  It is also consistent with the UK government’s development of the use of genomics for patient care within the NHS.

Johnson & Johnson committed $277 million in milestones to partner up with UK biotech Modern Biosciences, which is due to move into Phase I next year for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, after also receiving £2.4 million of funding recently from the Biomedical Catalyst programme for its bone-protection programme.  The company is a spinout of the University of Aberdeen and is 61.1% owned by IP Group.

AstraZeneca tightened its ties to the UK’s research establishment via a deal with CRUK which sees the company open up its Cambridge campus and compound library to the nonprofit’s drug discovery team.  CRUK researchers will have access to more than two million molecules in AZ’s library, as well as screening tools with which to mine the resource for promising drug candidates.

Scientists from Queen Mary University of London have come up with a new treatment for bladder cancer that has been shown to completely cure some people, a first significant breakthrough in the disease for 30 years.  The scientists discovered that an antibody allows cancer cells to be picked up by the immune system and eradicated before they can spread.

On the political front, Lord Saatchi’s Medical Innovation Bill, which argues for patients with terminal illnesses to receive new options on treatment with experimental drugs, has run into a lot of criticism with the Lancet calling the bill too non-specific in its wording.  This exemplifies the current struggle as the whole healthcare paradigm gets stood on its head.  Claire Bowie, the Managing Editor of Pharma Times in the UK, made some excellent observations on the direction of care provision within Simons Stevens’ five-year plan for the NHS, urging a more holistic view of public health at a public level.   It is clear to me that industry will have to further adjust and take an entirely new stance in this conversation.

I hope everyone has a spectacular run-up to the holidays.

Nigel Gaymond