Paul-Peter Tak on GlaxoSmithKline’s R&D strategy and the pivotal role of immunology
The industry is increasingly open to academic collaborations and alongside this a more radical step can be seen in pharma's willingness to move beyond 'not invented here' and take part in 'open innovation' initiatives. The trend is an acknowledgement that it is impossible to maintain a sustainable R&D pipeline from internal efforts alone.
For GlaxoSmithKline its pharma open innovation efforts began with diseases of the developing world, such as malaria - where it offered researchers free access to a 'virtual library' of tens of thousands of compounds that had been laying idle. The company's open innovation model was subsequently adapted so that it could be applied to different areas.
One of GSK's focus areas for this is immunology and at the forefront of this work is Paul-Peter Tak, who has served as chief immunology officer and senior vice president of R&D pipeline since January. He's not only the most senior immunologist at GSK, but more broadly he's also tasked with driving uptake of the best science across the company's research and development operations. One of the ways GSK is looking to achieve this in immunology is through its flagship Immunology Network.
Experts and new ideas
The Immunology Network is underpinned by an external board of 10 'immunology superstars'. “You bring together a group of people who are really smart, who learn from each other, and you select them looking through the lens of diversity. But also I looked at personalities to make sure that they would really build collective intelligence and help each other to build something for the future,” says Paul-Peter.
With the external immunology board in place, the next step for the Network is GSK's Immunology Catalyst. This sees six immunology experts - typically senior academics identified with the help of the board - invited from academia to take a sabbatical at GSK's research facility within the Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst, where they will continue with their own research and gain a greater understanding of pharmaceutical R&D. After their sabbatical ends, during which the company's own researchers will have learnt new skills and ways of working, GSK hopes the academics will want to continue the collaboration.
The plan is that, after their three years are up, the academics will return to their universities - “and we will help them to do that,” says Paul-Peter. “They will have learned about excellence in leadership, excellence in project management and development of people, many of the more soft skills that you learn in industry, rather than in academia.” In return they will be “a kind of think tank” for GSK that can bring positive disruptive elements to its R&D processes and challenge its internal teams.
“The Immunology Network is probably one of the most innovative and powerful tools that I use to drive innovation and proliferation between different parts of the business, but also between GSK and the external world,” Paul-Peter explains.
“It's critical to have a very strong link to the external world... and we have invested quite a lot in this.”
In fact, beyond the Immunology Network, the company has established more than 500 academic research partnerships. It has also been very active in the European Commission's Innovative Medicines Initiative and in setting up the the Center for Therapeutic Target Validation, now known as Open Target, together with the European Bioinformatics Institute and the Sanger Institute. “There is quite a lot going on,” Paul-Peter notes with some understatement.
A lot of new discoveries are often at the interface between different fields
A major research field
Meanwhile, industry-wide pipelines in immunology are in rude health thanks to a substantial patient population and strong unmet needs. With over 1,000 potential products being worked on, it's on a par with cardiovascular diseases and metabolic disorders in terms of research activity.
But for Paul-Peter immunology is more than just a therapy area - he views it as a platform. “It is becoming a strategic theme for many of the therapy areas that we have.”
Looking to the future, Paul-Peter sees GSK's next wave of innovation coming in immuno-inflammation. “We have built a very strong portfolio [there] during the last four and half years, almost from scratch.”
Leading this is Benlysta (belimumab), which in 2011 became the first new treatment for lupus to be approved in over 50 years and is being investigated for other auto antibody-dependent immune-mediated inflammatory disorders. In much the same way that the last decade saw the anti-TNF treatments for autoimmune conditions become a 'pipeline in a product', Paul-Peter says that with Benlysta GSK has “built a whole portfolio around one medicine”.
Looking to some of GSK's other pipeline highlights, Paul-Peter points to its anti-interleukin-6 antibody sirukumab, which was filed with European regulators for rheumatoid arthritis last month. If approved it will compete with the likes of Roche's RoActemra (tocilizumab). “Here again… we also have an aggressive approach towards the expansion of indications like fibromyalgia and joint arthritis in collaboration with our development partner Janssen.
“We are trying to build a holistic portfolio. The first wave will be rheumatology. The second will probably be gastroenterology. The third might be nephrology, depending on the data.”
A surprising inclusion in GSK's R&D hopes - given the 2015 swap of its cancer drugs business for Novartis' interests in vaccines - is its continued efforts in oncology. “Many people thought we moved out of oncology with the deal we had with Novartis. So that is really about the late-stage portfolio. We [are still] focused on three areas in oncology.” These are cancer epigenetics, immuno-oncology and cell and gene therapy in oncology. “There is a very strong research activity in this field,” Paul-Peter adds.
Having made “very significant changes to the portfolio when I arrived”, Paul-Peter is clearly proud of GSK's current research position. “Everything that we have is, in my view, prioritised and really exciting.” And it's not just the pipeline that has been energised. “We now have much more synergy and collaboration between the different units, because I believe that a lot of new discoveries are often at the interface between different fields.”
“From a scientific perspective, it's very clear that immunology is a major field in biomedical research. This scientific platform is probably relevant for all the therapy areas that we have at GSK and definitely those that we have focused on in the last few years.”
Prior to GSK, which he joined to lead the immuno-inflammation therapy unit, Paul-Peter worked in academia as a professor of medicine, in particular clinical immunology and rheumatology in an academic medical centre in Amsterdam.
Since then he's set his sights high. “I joined GSK because, after having been the head of a big department in Amsterdam, I wanted to have a bigger impact in terms of changing the lives of patients in a positive way. The dream is, if you can develop a medicine that can cure rheumatoid arthritis or can prevent type 1 diabetes, then you have done something really good during your career.“