Nonprofit gives £30M to turn 'golden triangle' into Alzheimer's drug discovery hub

Nonprofit Alzheimer's Research UK has unveiled a £30 million ($46 million) push to turn the heartland of British life sciences into a hotbed of R&D for Alzheimer's disease and other dementias. The plan is to task ex-pharma staffers and other researchers with creating a pipeline of clinical-phase assets from within labs at universities in Cambridge, London and Oxford.

Alzheimer's Research UK Head of Research Dr. Simon Ridley

Alzheimer's Research UK is splitting the £30 million equally between the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford and UCL, each of which is in the process of hiring a CSO to lead its drug discovery institute. Once the CSOs are in place, they will set about building their teams. The aim is to bring on a total of 90 scientists over the next 5 years, a figure that should be eminently achievable given the U.K.'s rich history and recent troubles in CNS drug discovery.

"I expect many of the experts to be ex-pharma," Alzheimer's Research UK Head of Research Dr. Simon Ridley told FierceBiotech. Over the past decade GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), Merck ($MRK) and others have trimmed or exited CNS R&D sites in the U.K. as part of an almost industry-wide retreat from the field. Alzheimer's Research UK plans to combine the pool of underused ex-pharma talent that remains with existing academic expertise at the three universities in an attempt to kickstart drug discovery.

The people behind the project have sky-high ambitions. Oxford Drug Discovery Institute is aiming to have at least three new therapies ready for clinical trials within 5 years, a target that Ridley expects to see mirrored at the other two centers. The goal is a big ask for a field in which many promising treatment hypotheses have crashed and burned, but one which Ridley and others think is achievable given the talent available and the slow uptick in understanding of molecular neuroscience processes.

Many factors could scuttle the 5-year goal, from scientific challenges inherent in drug discovery to mundane logistical issues involved with hiring people and getting R&D programs underway. But even if the project falls well short of its target, it could still provide a stream of partly derisked Alzheimer's disease candidates to an industry that has largely stopped discovering such drugs after being burnt one too many times.

This bridging of basic science and biopharma is central to the initiative, which Ridley sees running beyond its initial 5-year funding cycle. "We're not going to cure Alzheimer's disease in 5 years. Clearly this is a longer-term initiative," he said.

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