Financial Times

Oxford optimistic £115m diabetes centre will revive drug discovery and research

by Clive Cookson - Science Editor, Financial Times

January 31, 2017 | 2:16 pm
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Oxford university is to host a £115m diabetes research centre funded over 10 years by Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk.

Sir John Bell, Oxford’s professor of medicine and the government’s “life sciences champion”, said the investment signalled the revival of drug discovery research in the UK after a decade-long decline.

“We once had 11 companies doing early stage discovery research in the UK and now we have just two or three,” he said. “I think we can get that back to six or seven, making use of Britain’s world-leading strengths in the life sciences.”

About 100 Novo Nordisk scientists will work at the Oxford centre, investigating new ways of treating type-2 diabetes. The centre will be built on the university’s growing biomedical campus in Headington.

Among international drug companies, only GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca and to a lesser extent UCB of Belgium still carry out discovery research on a significant scale in Britain, Sir John said. Others are involved in later-stage development work, including clinical trials, as well as activities such as sales, marketing and management.

He was optimistic that two or three more companies would announce big research investments in the UK, encouraged by the government’s industrial str­a­tegy and its announcement in Nov­em­ber of a further £2bn in R&D spending.

Virginia Acha, research director at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, said UK universities were also benefiting from a shift in corporate research from in-house labs to collaboration with external partners.

“Although most large companies have significantly decreased their number of in-house drug discovery employees in the UK, they have increased their investment in collaborative and outsourced research,” she pointed out.

Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, Novo Nordisk’s chief scientist, said the decision to set up in Oxford followed 15 years of working with the university on a smaller scale, including a postdoctoral fellowship programme. The Brexit vote had no effect on the decision, he added. “All the uncertainties about Brexit are unfortunate but they do not affect this collaboration,” he said. “Oxford will remain a great global university whatever happens.”

Oxford will have Novo Nordisk’s second European research centre. At its home base in Denmark, the company has specialised in diabetes medication for 90 years. It also has two centres in the US and one in China.

It is unusual for a large corporate research group to be embedded within a university. “We want to really integrate the 100 Novo Nordisk scientists with the 2,500 people working on our biomedical campus,” said Sir John. “They will have the opportunity for daily interaction to share knowledge and insights that will potentially produce new medicines for people living with type-2 diabetes and its complications.”

According to the World Health Organization, the number of people with diabetes has risen from 108m in 1980 to 422m today. The increase is mainly in adults with type-2 diabetes, whose bodies cannot use insulin properly to control blood sugar levels. Experts say unhealthy eating is the most important underlying cause.

One of the world’s leading diabetes researchers, James Johnson of the University of British Columbia, has been recruited from Canada to head the centre. Novo Nordisk scientists will work on various projects with their Oxford colleagues. “We’d like to modify type-2 diabetes from being a chronic progressive disease – to stop it developing and even to reverse its course,” said Mr Thomsen.

The charity Diabetes UK, which has spent £10m on research at Oxford university over the past 10 years, said: “The collaboration highlights the strength of diabetes research and development in the UK.” Elizabeth Robertson, research director, said: “It’s fantastic to see partnerships between industry and academia joining our fight against the growing crisis in diabetes.”


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by Clive Cookson - Science Editor, Financial Times

January 31, 2017 | 2:16 pm
12893  |   93   |   0  |   Start Conversation

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