Let's face it nobody likes queues, especially while on business travel. But close encounters — even of the airline kind — can lead to business opportunities.
This is particularly true of the passenger traffic around big conferences. So it was that a chance meeting in a security queue at Dublin airport led to a discussion that could have far-reaching effects on the future of cancer research.
Heading home after presenting at an international cancer conference, Paul Smith, a cancer researcher at AstraZeneca, international bio-pharmaceutical group, was tapped on the shoulder by Pearl Huang, his counterpart at competing company Merck, who happened to be in the queue just behind him.
The two had never met, but Pearl had attended the conference hoping to hear Paul's presentation on an early stage cancer compound AstraZeneca was working on. The compound has the potential to block a biological messenger that tumours need to grow. Pearl knew that Merck had a similar project to develop a molecule blocking a different signal, which allows cancer cells to survive within the body. Some research suggested that a hybrid of the two could be many times more potent than either alone. Seeing Paul ahead of her in the queue, Pearl seized her chance.
As the two researchers chatted, they became intrigued by the idea that the two companies might join forces to test the drugs together as a regimen; a one-two punch against tumours. By the time their flights were called they had agreed to discuss the matter further when they returned to their respective headquarters.
For two pharmaceutical companies to partner on such early-stage projects is unprecedented. Historically, a drug would need to be proven effective on its own before considering a combination with another drug. However, there is a strong scientific rationale to try cancer drugs in combination. Scientists are able to develop drugs that act against very specific characteristics of cancer cells that help them survive and grow, but they've also learned that tumours can develop ways around these highly focussed therapies. Often when one pathway is lost, another is stimulated. One solution could be to attack tumours with a cocktail of drugs targeting multiple pathways. As the drug industry has over 800 molecules in development for various cancers, it makes sense for companies to cooperate and pool resources to test combinations more effectively.
Eighteen months after the airport meeting, AstraZeneca and Merck announced an official collaboration, having quietly worked on the idea since the encounter in Dublin, and having found it to have real potential as a novel treatment regimen. They are now sharing the cost of a clinical trial to test a regimen of the two drugs in the treatment of a range of tumours.
News of the collaboration was unveiled at a major cancer conference last year and was met with enthusiasm by researchers and doctors alike, who variously described it as "groundbreaking", "a momentous event" and "establishing a new paradigm". It is hoped that such a pooling of resources and experience will increase the likelihood of success in an area that has historically been among the toughest for discovering new drugs. Despite approximately 30% of global drug research and development spending going into cancer projects, potential cancer drugs have only an estimated 8 per cent chance of making it through all the trials of safety and effectiveness required to reach the market, compared to around 20 per cent of drugs for other diseases.
The chance airport encounter may have set the scene for a more efficient and collegiate approach to developing new treatments for cancer and other diseases in the future.
Anders Ekblom is Executive Vice-President of Development at AstraZeneca (astrazeneca.co.uk)
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