Collaboration in neurodegeneration drug discovery: Turning challenges into opportunities

Developing treatments for neurodegenerative diseases is no simple task, with recent high-profile failures in clinical trials highlighting the colossal challenges in this area. However, by learning from these setbacks, the drug discovery community is developing a much more collaborative approach which is leading to exciting new developments in this field.

To learn more about the benefits of collaboration in neurodegeneration drug discovery, we spoke to Dr Fiona Marshall, VP Head of Neuroscience Discovery and Head of Discovery Research MRL UK at MSD. Fiona gave us some key insights into this exciting area, and promised to tell us more in this year’s plenary lecture at our upcoming Drug Discovery 2019 conference.

Q: How has drug discovery research focussing on neurodegenerative diseases advanced over the last few years?

A: That’s an interesting question, because some would say it’s gone backwards rather than forwards due to the failures we experienced in targeting the amyloid pathway in Alzheimer’s Disease. However, I’d say that these recent setbacks have opened up promising new avenues of research, and crucially, they’ve led to a much more collaborative approach across the field of neurodegeneration drug discovery.

Q: Can you elaborate on the failure of the amyloid hypothesis, and explain how it’s taught us about the value of collaboration?

A: Essentially, for 20 years, many teams of researchers in Alzheimer’s Disease independently focused their efforts on the same pathway – targeting the amyloid β protein. However, this approach ultimately wasn’t successful.

The big problem was that results weren’t typically shared between researchers at the time. Therefore, many companies went into clinical studies with various antibodies or enzyme inhibitors, and it was only after successive trials failing that we realised some of the problems in developing drugs directed at the amyloid pathway for treating Alzheimer’s Disease. In the future, if companies share knowledge between teams early on, we might be able to save time and resources and develop successful new medicines faster.

Q: So how has the drug discovery community responded to this challenge?

A: The great thing about our response to this is that we’re seeing a lot more collaboration. The amyloid hypothesis highlighted the pitfalls of siloed working, and so over the last 5– 10 years, big pharma companies have begun to work together in very constructive partnerships. What’s more, we’re also seeing more scientists take time to actively share their experiences and knowledge.

This has two key benefits for neurodegeneration research. Firstly, with a more collaborative approach, we can avoid collectively wasting time and resources on targets that are not going to be effective either through lack of efficacy or due to safety concerns. Secondly, bringing together multiple people with different ideas and capabilities is typically a much more effective way of solving a problem than working alone. By sharing knowledge between specialisms, scientists can better progress their research and push the boundaries of drug discovery further, ultimately contributing to the common goal of improving patient health. Since we’ve seen this shift towards a more collaborative mindset, drug discovery research into neurodegenerative diseases has undoubtedly advanced.

Q: Who should be involved in these cross-disciplinary partnerships?

A: It really is essential that everyone works together if we’re going to advance research as quickly as possible. Pharma companies, biotech companies and CROs can collaborate in partnerships with academic research scientists.

What’s more, in the UK we have the opportunity of collaborating with the NHS as a part of the government’s life science industrial strategy. In fact, I think the NHS is going to be a core part of these collaborations going forward.  For example, the UK biobank, is an incredible resource of human tissues samples for researchers working on the pathology of disease.

Q: So, what can individual scientists do to foster a more collaborative approach?

A: It’s crucial to learn about the latest developments – not just in your field, but across different areas of biology. This can be really important when you’re working on common pathways that apply to multiple therapeutic areas. By way of example, my team are looking at the mechanisms of aging, studying the changes that occur within cells as we get older. This is relevant to the field of neurodegeneration, but also many other diseases such as cardiovascular disease, loss of vision and loss of hearing. Therefore, it can be incredibly valuable to learn from people working across many areas of biology to help you gain new insights into your field. You can do this by keeping up with the latest papers, or by attending cross-disciplinary networking events such as the Drug Discovery 2019 conference.

Q: Can you tell us more about what scientists would gain from attending the Drug Discovery 2019 conference?

A: The value of this conference is that it’s much broader in scope than, say, a more focussed academic meeting. Instead, it involves people from across all the different sectors of drug discovery. This means that you can listen to talks about different therapeutic areas, speak to other experts, and learn how you can work together to solve our future challenges.

There’s also a fantastic set of companies that are developing different technologies and an exhibition where you can learn about new instrumentation, which may be highly relevant to work you’re doing in the lab. Basically, if you want to find out more about cutting-edge advances in drug discovery, this is a great place to come.

ELRIG’s 2019 Drug Discovery meeting is free to attend – register now to secure your place.