Authored by Karl Simpson
The recent acquisition of Norway’s biotech frontrunner, Algeta, by Bayer for $2.9 billion, purchasing their exciting new prostate cancer drug Xofigo, has brought considerable attention on Oslo, a small biotech market by global standards, but one with a dedicated focus and big ambitions. In a discussion about the plans for Oslo’s Cancer Cluster with its General Manager, a key question arose: where is the expertise or competence to build the companies with a strong focus on cancer therapeutics?
Cancer therapy landscape
First, it is important to understand the landscape. Market-wide, solid tumour oncology and haematology drug development are at an interesting stage of scientific progress. With new drug therapies like Kadcyla hitting the market, antibody technologies such as Antibody-Drug Conjugates (ADCs), bi-specifics and protein scaffolds are driving new possibilities.
These antibody-engineered approaches are benefiting from a broader-based philosophical shift in the culture of pharmaceutical drug development. Both large and small companies are now invested in the idea that externalisation, partnerships and licensed technologies are central to the success of innovative drug development addressing many different but specific tumour types. These collaborative and open innovation approaches are fundamental in the development of breakthrough therapies for oncology, as many of them combine important technologies, such as linker technologies or payloads with existing and novel therapeutics.
Cancer vaccines and immunotherapy, too, have been showing great promise. The checkpoint modulators as monotherapies have proved efficacious in trial data for melanoma and lung cancer, in particular, the relative success of the new PD-1 and PDL-1 drugs from the likes of Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS), Merck and Roche are attracting plaudits from key opinion leaders and the scientific community. However, combination therapies remain a central idea in cancer therapy and these are emerging in immunotherapies too.
Europe is seeing a groundswell of activity in these variable approaches to oncology drug development. Antibody approaches, cancer vaccines, modulators of the innate immune system and cell therapy are all attempting to achieve greater clinical or disease outcomes for patients with different forms of cancer.
As often happens, numerous companies are clambering to reposition themselves strategically in immunotherapy. This increase in research, translational and clinical development activity has created a strong demand for proven, experienced scientific and medical executives with particular knowledge of, and experience in, developing these innovative approaches. This demand is particularly acute in the field of immuno- oncology, witnessing a sharp increase in demand for experienced R&D professionals.
In many cases, European companies in immuno-oncology, with senior recruiting needs in R&D, are having to conduct truly global searches to pinpoint the requisite experience or face making considerable compromises on the ideal candidate profile.
This inevitably means that companies are scouting US-based talent, facing the inherent complexities that go with that, to try to attract the relevant skills. US biotech is again booming, and biotech clusters such as Boston and the Bay Area are acting like talent magnets, so the competitiveness of Europe in attracting these sought-after skills is seriously constrained. In fact, this talent is more likely to show a statistical migration towards the US, rather than in the other direction. So, there is a distinct deficiency in the research and early development skill-sets needed in immuno-oncology in Europe.
As investor Bruce Booth asserts in his May blog article about Talent Acquisition, the source of much of biotech’s research and development talent originates from large pharma. The discovery and drug development process require many different skills and qualities and in large pharma, this experience is honed to a high standard of experience and professional competence. The symbiotic relationship between the biotech world and pharma provides a source of innovation, as well as a wealth of talent.
This presents a challenge in Europe. Any rudimentary research into the source of the most advanced skills and knowledge of immuno-oncology R&D will invariably lead to the achievements of BMS, Merck, Medimmune or Roche/Genentech. The research and/or development of many of these programmes are conducted and run in the US. These companies also work hard to keep employees engaged and thereby retained. This creates a substantial shortfall in the experience available and accessible in Europe to develop immuno-oncology therapeutics.
The problems for aspiring European companies and clusters
This challenge affects any company in Europe, irrespective of the hyper-connectivity of the cluster, or proximity and access to pharma. European companies dedicated to immuno-oncology face considerable impediments when acquiring the core practical expertise in either the research or development fields. Clear and sustained effort is needed to attract the world’s best to work for them, physically or virtually.
Of course, virtual company structures offer a possible solution, but these are not without limitations. And at some stage there has to be the physical assimilation of expertise, otherwise, they are competing in an open and borderless talent market where the thresholds to attracting people will be lowered but, equally, remain low to losing them too.
Companies will typically raid the academic sector to bridge their need but the depth of knowledge around drug development is best sourced from those companies who have lived the rigours of challenging cancer drug development programmes.
The Oslo Cancer Cluster is an embryonic cluster with exciting possibilities. It is building a nucleus of companies closely aligned with this field of cancer therapy. Its infancy is perhaps partly attributable to the absence of a recognised pharmaceutical industry in the country capable of fostering growth.
A cluster like Oslo has to find ways to leverage the diffused expertise of the cancer development marketplace. But how? It is neither reasonable nor practical to expect a sudden influx of expertise, at least not without seriously attractive incentives offered through governmental policy. This means the companies themselves will need to adopt innovative approaches to the way they source people.
Oslo Cancer Cluster’s strategy is well conceived and its focused therapeutic approach in oncology, and specifically immuno-oncology, has an above-average chance of building a real community of highly qualified and credible international experts in the field of cancer medicine. The practical implementation of their vision requires them to bring together academic research, hospitals, company incubation and international experience, all of which will need competitiveness in an international talent market already characterised by a dearth of strong experience. At the heart of the matter is the understanding that the best science still needs the best people around it – and in immuno-oncology that recently became a global battle.