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Something extraordinary is happening right now. Impelled by the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, researchers, medics, funding agencies, pharmaceutical companies and regulators have joined forces to get potential solutions to the crisis into testing at unprecedented speed.

Development of medicines doesn’t usually proceed at this pace. Research into promising vaccines for Ebola had been stalled for want of funding for years – but propelled by the current crisis, tests into their safety and effectiveness have been launched with great urgency. The treatments are already poised for large scale tests in Africa.

We know that there are also future cancer cures languishing on laboratory shelves and slowly moving  through clinical development, and the Cancer Research UK Centre for Drug Development (formerly our Drug Development Office)  wants to find them, free them, and give them momentum like those Ebola vaccines.

For Ebola vaccines, speed has been prompted by the need to prevent tragedy becoming catastrophe. But at Cancer Research UK we know that time is also of the essence in beating cancer. Of course, research will always take time, both because results are never instantaneous and because meeting the requirements of regulations is slow and expensive.

And we rightly demand that treatments for cancer really do work and are safe, of course, and we demand that the tests, to demonstrate as much, are conducted safely and responsibly.

But for academic research teams and small companies with limited resources, the complex processes involved in testing and developing drugs can be daunting. Navigating through laboratory testing and early phase clinical trials can be a difficult journey, and even with the backing of large companies there are many reasons why research which shows great potential can still fall by the wayside.

That’s where the Cancer Research UK Centre for Drug Development comes in: providing all of the expertise and infrastructure to make the journey a smooth and swift one.

Jump-starting research

One of the Centre’s specialities is jumpstarting research on drugs which have stalled.

Our Clinical Development Partnerships scheme brings new life to agents which have been deprioritised by industry. A company might already be busy developing other drugs, lack the specific focus that we have on cancer, or be unsure whether to take the risk on a treatment for what may be a rare cancer.

Whatever the reason, our Clinical Development Partnerships get them moving again. We take on the drug and conduct the tests and early phase clinical trials ourselves, at our own cost and risk.

In return, if we back a winner, we take a share of revenues to put back into our research — but more importantly, we’ll have ensured that another treatment is in the clinic benefiting patients much sooner.

In their first few years, Clinical Development Partnerships have already seen some great results from a Phase I trial for a treatment for glioblastoma – a particularly serious form of brain tumour. IMA950, an immunotherapeutic vaccine, was designed by Immatics Biotechnologies and showed promise in laboratory tests, but when it came to taking it forward the independent biotechnology company already had its resources tied up developing their other drugs.

Rather than allow the treatment to sit in a queue, they got in touch with us and we continued its development (you can read more about these Partnerships in this guest post).

A winning combination?

Another of our initiatives is driving research into one of the most exciting advances in cancer therapy — one which we’ve written about before — combination treatments.

Our position at the hub of a great network of researchers, clinicians and centres, and our status as a charity motivated purely by our mission to beat cancer, makes us uniquely placed for bringing together the perfect partnerships to drive this kind of research.

Our Combinations Alliances introduce academic researchers to industry partners and to the resources of the Cancer Research UK community, including the network of Experimental Cancer Medicine Centres that we run with the NHS, providing the support they need in order to lead investigations into novel treatment combinations.

Nine trials of new combinations are already recruiting patients, and a further five are currently in the process of being set up, with more to come.

A unique resource

Clinical Development Partnerships and Combinations Alliances projects are just a part of the Centre’s portfolio, and its purpose is to support pre-clinical testing and early phase trials wherever support is needed, whether it be the expertise required to manage the research, or the infrastructure to conduct it. The Centre is built on 30 years of experience of early phase cancer drug development, and that experience, coupled with our infrastructure, makes it a unique resource.

In the non-commercial sector we are alone in Europe in having the capacity to manufacture the agents we research in our own facilities — including our state-of-the-art Biotherapeutics  Development Unit. Our access to the large and diverse community of Cancer Research UK researchers means that we can broker the alliances that ensure that promising research gets the attention from the experts it needs.

Our track record speaks for itself: we helped turn candidates like abiraterone and temozolomide into treatments that provide more tomorrows for thousands of people with cancer around the world. At the Centre for Drug Development we’ll be able to do more than ever to make today’s science tomorrow’s medicine, as we’re increasing our investment in early phase drug development work.

If you’re a researcher, and interested in how the Centre for Drug Development might be able to help you realise the potential of your research, take a look at our brochure (PDF) or get in touch with the team.