The Discovery Centre for Translational and Interdisciplinary Research (CTIR)

University of Dundee

 

Established in 2012, the Discovery Centre for Translational and Interdisciplinary Research (CTIR) translates research discoveries into healthcare solutions. Located in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Dundee, the CTIR houses the Drug Discovery Unit (DDU), a unit which collaborates with global partners to develop new medicines for diseases of unmet medical need. It also brings together scientists developing computational, mathematical and biophysical techniques to answer questions in biological and medical research. Further it houses a Laboratory of Quantitative Proteomics that has developed innovative informatics tools for analysing, visualising, integrating and sharing big data

The UKRPIF funding has been invested in state-of-the-art equipment, optimised with a strong computational capability and housed in a purpose-built, open-plan, four-storey building. The centre has received support from charitable sources, including over £50m of co-investment and R&D funding from the Wellcome Trust.

Key Findings:

  • The CTIR is a Centre of Excellence for fighting the diseases of the developing world and in 2017 became the Wellcome Centre for Anti-Infectives Research.
  • In 2014, the University of Dundee received the 'Project of the Year' award from the Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV). The DDU continues to make significant scientific discoveries, with candidate drugs for preventing and treating malaria reaching clinical trials in 2017.
  • The CTIR has secured £91m of co-investment from private and public sources, leveraging in £7.65 for every £1 of UKRPIF funding received.
  • The UKRPIF investment has doubled the centre's drug discovery capability. Predicated on this expansion, the CTIR has leveraged over £60m of additional investment since July 2012 with £46m for research in drug discovery and £14m allocated to computational biology and quantitative proteomics.
  • The Centre has intellectual property (IP) as research in quantitative proteomics re-engineered the way equipment and data processing are linked together. The model has already been procured by Manchester University and two further, larger spin-outs may occur as the facility is replicated in an industry setting and an informatics platform is marketed.

Project outputs

Changing the operating model

The Drug Discovery Unit is now the size of a substantial biotech business with 2,800m2 of floor space (1,800m2 housed in the CTIR). The research capacities are further enhanced by having the "ideal mix" of equipment.

The UKRPIF award has also changed the way staff interact with the open plan lab and office spaces, which were purposely "designed to help people to have conversations". Research leaders felt that this fostered collaboration between disciplines, with one noting that research centres split by discipline or operations can balkanise expertise.

The translational outputs of the CTIR have enabled the University of Dundee to attract the attention of venture capital investors. This has unlocked innovation within School of Life Sciences that had yet to be fully realised and has accelerated the commercialization of biomedical discoveries to generate new spinout companies.

Research

The CTIR has a track record of delivering high impact research outputs, with a recent paper on the treatment of malaria appearing in Nature (2016). Research outputs are also generated by academic colleagues from across the UK who collaborate with researchers in the CTIR including within the Drug Discovery Unit. Scientists at the University of Dundee carrying out research on Parkinson's disease are using the facilities at the DDU, benefiting from its links with the computational teams. In October 2017, the research team identified the structure of a key enzyme that protects the brain against Parkinson's, the result of a decade of work.

The Wellcome Trust, the Gates Foundation, and the British Heart Foundation have all funded projects at the CTIR to further research on diseases of the developing world and to enhance translational activity. The UKRPIF helped to secure a £0.9m Innovate UK award to refurbish the top floor of the centre as a chemistry lab for anti-bacterial drug discovery.

Translational activity and commercialisation

The UKRPIF investment has doubled the CTIR's drug discovery capability by increasing capacity and removing bottlenecks in the processes that test candidate drugs.

The DDU collaborates with major pharmaceutical companies such as GSK, Bristol Myers Squibb and Eli Lilly, amongst others. Companies are able to view the premises before committing funding, which helps overcome industrial preconceptions of drug discovery capabilities in academia as limited. Prospective industrial partners are "reassured and impressed by the standard of the facilities".

The DDU actively supports researcher spin-outs. An Edinburgh-based biotech company, IOmet Pharma, was founded on IP developed in partnership with the DDU and was sold to US company Merck for a reported US$400m in 2016 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-business-35294800) with revenues remitted back to Dundee University. Pacylex Pharmaceutical Inc., a spin-out form the University of Alberta, Canada was also dependent on IP developed in the DDU.

The University of Dundee is aiming to harness this infrastructure in professional drug discovery and exemplary partnerships between industry and academia to catalyse a sustainable step change in innovation led growth through new company formations, job creation and inward investment as part of Tay Cities deal. CTIR director, Professor Mike Ferguson, is co-leading a project "Grow the Tayside BioMedical Cluster" that aims to provide spin-out space and business support, creating wealth and sustainable job opportunities for the region through life sciences innovation.

Staffing

The CTIR has provided large-scale research facilities that are attractive to academics and industry professionals alike. The recent period of expansion funded by UKRPIF has been at a time of downsizing in the wider pharmaceutical industry meaning that the centre has picked up several staff (e.g. from the former Merck site in Glasgow) who would otherwise have left Scotland or the UK.

Additionality of the UKRPIF

Prior to the UKRPIF award the DDU and proteomics teams had purchased equipment in a piecemeal manner as research grants were awarded. The UKRPIF provided an opportunity to target gaps in equipment and ensure they were more closely aligned. With the UKRPIF contributing a large single amount of capital funding, co-investors were able to focus on funding research, an approach preferred by charitable donors. 

Future activity and lessons learned

There was a general view that high quality research needs high quality equipment. The scale at which CTIR operates places it well in terms of comparable institutions, for example the Broad Institute at MIT, and centres at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Oxford. Interviewees highlighted issues around maintenance, citing both costs and the relatively fast obsolescence as driving a need for future funding. The CTIR works at a scale that must be maintained, although it was noted that efficiencies can deteriorate with even modest reductions in the operational size because of bottlenecks emerging.