CRAIGAVON, Northern Ireland—Pharmaceutical development company Almac and Queen's University of Belfast joined forces in early September to co-develop tests for diagnosing and treating prostate, ovarian and breast cancer.
"The initial focus is on the development of a prognostic test for prostate cancer, the development of technology to develop biomarkers from blood and the identification and development of novel drug targets" in the three cancers, says Prof. Richard Kennedy, the McClay Chair of Experimental Cancer Medicine at Queen's University. Kennedy also now has a joint appointment at Almac.
The research initiative, based at the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology at Queen's, will be led by Kennedy, one of Almac's experts in personalized medicine—which tailors specific treatment to each cancer patient.
Kennedy explains the research will involve using cutting-edge technology developed by Almac that will allow the partners to analyze patient tumors collected by Queen's in quantity.
"Almac provides technological and bioinformatics expertise required in the analysis of archived human tumor samples for target and biomarker identification," Kennedy says. "The organization also has considerable expertise in the development of novel drug compounds through Almac Discovery, an independent member of the Almac Group focused on innovative approaches to the treatment of cancer."
The two organizations, according to Kennedy, have enjoyed successful collaborations before now but this project is the first of its kind.
"As well as having a large archived tumor bank, Queen's University also has expertise in preclinical drug target and biomarker modeling as well as immunohistochemical biomarker development," he says. "The university is also a leader in medicinal chemistry, particularly in fragment screening approaches."
In addition, Almac Group's U.K. headquarters and Queen's University are geographically close and have collaborated on projects in the past such as in the development of a prognostic test for stage II colon cancer and in the identification of a novel anti-angiogenic cancer therapy.
The partners say that they will consider the pact successful if they are able to identify at least two commercially viable biomarkers and two drug targets that enter the Almac biomarker and drug development pipelines. The projects will be run under project management from Almac and have well-defined Go/No go criteria, goals and timelines.
Kennedy also points out the regional economic development benefits of the partnership by pointing out that Almac has always demonstrated its commitment to education by funding several graduate student research positions. Full-time positions are also part of this collaboration.
"There are 10 posts immediately linked to the program but also the possibility of expanding the number of jobs if the program is commercially successful," he says.
Economic development officials in Northern Ireland have expressed their support for the project, pointing out that academic and industry linkages are vital to economic growth, strengthening the knowledge base and enhancing Northern Ireland's reputation as an international research and development hub.
Invest Northern Ireland (NI) and the McClay Foundation are partnering to fund the lab facilities and staff costs. Invest NI has committed financial support, which includes in part funding from the European Regional Development Fund under the Sustainable Competitiveness Programme for Northern Ireland.
The Almac Group provides a range of pharmaceutical services from R&D, biomarker discovery and development, API manufacture, formulation development, clinical trial supply and IXRS technology, to commercial-scale manufacture. Almac provides services to more than 600 companies in the pharmaceutical and biotech sectors.
While it is headquartered in Craigavon, Northern Ireland, it maintains a North American headquarters in Souderton, Pa., and has sites in California and North Carolina.
The McClay Foundation, established in 2008 by Almac's founder, the late Sir Allen McClay in 2008, is a charitable trust which aims to advance the use of diagnostic tools and drugs in the prevention, control and cure of the disease and to support and encourage research and innovation in the field of healthcare across the globe, while promoting employment opportunities for the people of Northern Ireland.