Melanie Lee CBE is Chief Executive of LifeArc, a self-funded medical research charity that is working in collaboration to translate early science for patient benefit.
Tell me about LifeArc
As a self-funded medical research charity, I believe LifeArc is unique. With a 25-year legacy of collaborating with scientists, academics and industry on diagnostics and therapies, LifeArc enhances and protects innovation. Ultimately, we advance promising research that can benefit patients in the future.
We do this in a few different ways. We help advance medical innovation through our own lab-based research, the support and advice we provide to our partners, the funding we make available and by developing people with expertise in medical translation.
“We advance promising research that can benefit patients in the future”
What’s your history?
I have worked in the healthcare sector for over 30 years. I started my career as a scientist in the laboratory. It was a great environment at the start of my career as I had the freedom to conduct my own research. It was exciting but I was always looking for the next challenge. This is what led me to make the transition into industry and a role in research and development. Learning the processes and corporate way of life was a slight shock after academia. But as my understanding grew, I began to enjoy the structure and more importantly, having a goal to aim for through my work.
I previously held Chair and Deputy Chair Trustee appointments at Cancer Research Technology and Cancer Research UK respectively, so when I joined LifeArc a year ago, I already understood the medical research charity sector. As a charitable organisation, LifeArc can take a more long-term approach to translational science than many commercial companies and that ethos was very attractive to me.
It’s been an exciting first year at LifeArc, taking the charity through monetisation of our royalty interest in the product Keytruda® (pembrolizumab), a significant financial milestone, and developing our long-term strategy. We now have a tremendous opportunity to support life sciences research and accelerate the development of new therapies, diagnostics and devices for those in greatest need.
What are your aims and objectives?
We focus on translation – taking early ideas from first discovery principals into commercial or useable product the industry will recognise.
We recognise that the world we deliver products into doesn’t stand still. Healthcare, science and technology are ever-changing. We are forced to constantly broaden our understanding, our information, and our skills to embrace the future of healthcare. For this reason, we’re starting to shift our focus to cover what we call the ‘four Ds’: Drugs, Devices, Digital and Diagnostics.
We look to encourage the drug and devices industry to be more interactive with digital and pay more attention to diagnosis. In this way, we can bring together a more complete package of information to meet the future requirements of medicine and potentially change how we treat disease.
You work on a collaborative basis; who do you collaborate with, on what and why?
We collaborate with a broad range of groups including medical research charities, research organisations, industry and academic scientists, to get to a place where their work is attractive to commercial organisations. Each collaboration is built with patient benefit in mind whether it is to support the creation and development of a start-up or to progress a new therapy.
An example of this is our multi-year partnership with Cancer Research UK and the Japanese pharmaceutical company Ono Pharmaceutical to develop new immunotherapy drug targets. The collaboration will identify targets for the development of both antibody and small molecule therapeutics.
“We now have a tremendous opportunity to support life sciences research and accelerate the development of new therapies, diagnostics and devices for those in greatest need”
What are your capabilities?
We work in three core ways within translational science: advice, science and funding. Firstly, we offer high-quality advice to academia and charities to enable them to translate early science into patient benefit. We also conduct translational science leveraging our own drug discovery and diagnostics development facilities, supported by experts in technology transfer and intellectual property. Finally, we provide funding to support the development of innovative science, either philanthropically to drive reputation and impact, or with the aim of creating a sustainable return for LifeArc.
What type of investment do you offer?
As a charity, we’re in a unique position where we can consider investing in projects with a high degree of risk or where commercial returns may be low. This means we can fill a funding gap that commercial organisations may see as too ‘risky’. We have two funds in place to help us achieve our purpose. Our Philanthropic Fund provides grants to researchers for advancing new treatments for rare diseases; our Seed Fund makes investments and provides expertise for early stage spin-out companies within the UK and we are setting up a venture capital fund with Bridge Valley Ventures.
What’s your disease area focus?
We’re very interested in immunology and immuno-oncology, neurology and anti-infectives and we remain active in rare disease. Of course, these are all very popular fields, so we’ll have to decide what to do in-house and where we should work with others to ensure we get new treatments to patients.
It’s important to consider that the rapidly changing, cost-contained healthcare environment is demanding more targeted treatments to justify spending on innovative medicines. With this, we’re seeing industry focus switching from treating diseases in silo to person-centred approaches. Pharmaceutical companies will still need validated therapeutic opportunities.
But to be differentiated in the future, the products will need to carry more information. Diagnostics will be able to identify patients likely to develop a condition much earlier. Advances in data analytics and genomic information will enable greater targeting of medicines.
What breakthroughs have you played a part in?
At the start of my career, my laboratory work included fundamental research on the cell cycle. This earnt me my CBE and ultimately, led to new therapeutic entities now helping patients. Sir Paul Nurse and his team continued this research and was awarded a Nobel Prize for Medicine for it. He was extraordinarily inclusive and generous when he received the prize as the whole team was invited to the ceremony in Sweden in 2001.
In the last few decades, LifeArc has had some fantastic success in translating therapeutics and has become a specialist in humanising antibodies – with over 60 in our history. The result of LifeArc’s work can also be seen through four licensed medicines: Keytruda [pembrolizumab] in oncology, Tysabri® [natalizumab] in multiple sclerosis, Actemra® [tocilizumab] in rheumatoid arthritis and Entyvio® [vedolizumab] in Crohn’s disease. A diagnostic for antibiotic resistance is also on the market and a number of molecules are currently being investigated in clinical trials. We are excited about what’s to come for LifeArc as we progress our areas of expertise – and expand into new!
What else do you do?
We recognise the importance of our people at LifeArc and the skills and expertise they bring. They are a key part of our future success.
One of my day-to-day objectives is to build the next generation of translational researchers. We have various training schemes which were created to attract and retain the best talent in translational research, including two technology transfer Fellowship programmes and industrial placement opportunities for UK university students.
Go to www.lifearc.org