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World Cancer Day: Q&A with George Orphanides

Lab photo Oncology Programme at Alderley Park

Tell us a little bit about you and your background in oncology research and development...

My background in oncology research and development has mostly been in the pharmaceutical industry - I spent around 19 years in the industry in total, helping to develop new drugs to treat cancer.

What are the top 3 things you learnt during that time?

  1. It’s not all about the pill. It’s also about understanding the science, knowing how the drug should be used, which patients it should be used in and at what stage of their disease, and which combinations of drugs will work best together.

  2. It’s important to plan in advance every step involved in getting a drug approved. That means really understanding what patients need and defining the evidence that will be required to show that the drug is safe and effective, because ultimately, you want to get the drug onto the market as soon as possible so it can help patients.

  3. Pharma companies can’t develop drugs in isolation. They need to collaborate with lots of different people with diverse skills and expertise - including cancer researchers, biomarker experts, oncologists, clinical trial experts and many other specialists.

One of the things I have focussed on during my career in the pharma industry has been building alliances and partnerships with organisations outside of pharma, to help develop drugs collaboratively. That approach led me to working with Ned Wakeman and his team at the Alderley Park Accelerator, to help devise and build a new collaborative programme centred around oncology innovations, the ‘Oncology Development Programme’ for which I am now the Project Leader

Why are programmes like the Oncology Development Programme so necessary and vital to accelerate innovation and patient benefit?

Such programmes are absolutely critical in helping to translate exciting cancer research into medicines and other products that ultimately can help cancer patients.

The UK is one of the world leaders in cancer research, but translating that research excellence into a product is complicated and requires expertise and insight not readily available to most researchers.

The Alderley Park Oncology Development Programme will help scientists and companies to build and validate a roadmap for how they will develop their innovations and bring a product to market. This is based on a deep understanding of the needs of customers, which requires asking difficult questions and challenging even the most basic assumptions about the value of their innovation.  

We use a structured set of well-validated innovation tools, and surround participants with oncology experts (academics, clinicians, industry, and CROs) who help them to identify and fill gaps in their data set and plans, and to validate their path to commercialisation. Participants must be prepared to spend many hours speaking to customers and other experts to challenge their assumptions, gain a deep understanding of their market, and ultimately validate their critical path. 

Our ambition for the companies that graduate from our programme is that they can gain the investment they need to deliver proof-of-concept for their product fast and efficiently. 

Why is the Oncology Development Programme so unique? What are you looking forward to most?

Firstly, the diversity and quality of our partners is excellent. We have four leading pharmaceutical companies supporting the programme - this is really important as we want to ensure that the projects on our programme align with the needs of industry and cancer patients. These four companies together are some of the leading players in oncology and have developed drugs that have provided benefit to millions of patients around the world. 

One of the partners is the Medicines Discovery Catapult (MDC), based at Alderley Park, an impressive organisation with all the tools and expertise that small companies need to help them deliver proof-of-concept data fast. Uniquely, we have included in our programme a phase in which the MDC will help the projects develop precise plans for the experiments and activities that are needed to demonstrate proof-of-concept - essentially a detailed project plan with timelines and costs. This is an important feature of our programme, as many accelerators stop before participants have developed and validated their delivery plans and worked out their costs.

Other partners include The Manchester Cancer Research Centre, contributing excellence in cancer research and clinical care. We are also privileged to receive ongoing support from Cancer Research UK and Innovate UK, who are funding the programme.

Finally, the oncology ecosystem within the Bruntwood SciTech network, including a number of CROs, oncology companies, and drug discovery and diagnostics experts, provide support to the companies on the programme.

The thing I’m looking forward to the most, which in fact has already started, is engaging with the many talented and enthusiastic scientists and entrepreneurs that will join the programme, and helping them to explore the potential of their innovations and develop their plans.

What do you see as the next big thing  in oncology research for 2021 and beyond?

I think there are a number of really exciting innovations that will guide the development of new cancer therapies and treatments for this year and beyond. 

The first area relates to cancer drugs. A lot of this revolves around the way that precision medicine is being used. We are seeing new approaches that help oncologists select patients who are most likely to respond to new drugs. For example, biomarkers detected in a patient's blood can provide information on the type of tumour they have and whether they will respond to a particular drug. This is now being taken to the next level - these same markers in the blood can be used to identify the patients whose tumours are becoming resistant to the drugs, meaning that their tumours will start to grow again, and they can then be given different drugs to fight this resistance.

The second really exciting innovation that we are witnessing is the way that new classes of drugs are able to harness the patient’s own immune system to fight their cancer. Tumours are really good at hiding from the immune system, but cancer immunotherapy drugs can activate the patient’s immune system to attack cancer cells and shrink the tumours. 

One of the issues that researchers are facing is that these new immunotherapy drugs don’t work in all patients, and we are only just starting to understand why. Research is being focussed on how to use different combinations of drugs to activate the immune response in patients whose cancers are currently insensitive to immunotherapy drugs. 

New approaches, such as cell-based therapies, engineered viruses that attack tumours, and nucleic acid drugs, are on the horizon, although each have their own challenges to overcome. 

Another exciting development is the way that advanced computational approaches and artificial intelligence are beginning to be applied to the discovery of new cancer drugs; for example, by helping us understand the pathways cancer cells rely on most and to help researchers design better drugs.

Another area that I think will make a big difference to the way that we treat cancer in the future, is to do with how and when cancer is detected. For many cancers, patients are often diagnosed at a late stage in the progression of their disease - when the disease has already spread from the primary site into other organs. We have a much better chance of curing cancer if we can detect it at an early stage. We’re seeing the development of new technologies that can detect the presence of a tumour using sensitive biomarkers in blood or urine. This is particularly important for cancers that tend to be diagnosed at an advanced stage when the treatment options are limited, such as pancreatic cancer 

Finally, it will be interesting to see whether the super-fast development of Covid-19 vaccines around the world, including in the UK of course, has an impact on the speed at which cancer drugs are developed in the future. Can some of the lessons learned with the Covid-19 vaccines be applied to the development of cancer drugs? 

This year’s World Cancer Day theme is all around commitment to act - what do you think are the most important actions for individuals to take in their daily life to support the cause, but also what does industry need to do to act?

There are some important actions that individuals can take to support the cause of World Cancer Day. Supporting organisations that are dedicated to improving the lives of cancer patients - that means charities that support cancer research, but it also means supporting other organisations that play a really important role in helping cancer patients. For example, your local cancer hospice.

Secondly, at a personal level, I think we can all take action to ensure that we and our loved ones stay fit and healthy, particularly through these challenging times.

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