How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected how you do drug discovery?
Clearly, we have had to abide by all the rules put in place by the Government to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our staff, first and foremost. From an early point in the pandemic we took the time to ensure that all of our staff could work from home as much as possible, not only in the physical sense but also by offering flexible hours that helped their individual home situations. Because of that, they have adapted really well and the work that they do has been little affected.
We do a lot of our work with outside contract research organisations and that is where we have seen more of an impact, but we have worked closely with them to understand and adapt to what they can and can’t do given the circumstances. However, we have found that they have all been responsive and worked hard to keep things on track where possible.
How have you adapted your ways of working and has there been any unexpected benefits from working differently?
In some ways, we have been more efficient due to working virtually. Using online communication platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams has made a huge difference in enabling non face-to-face meetings to occur. It means we can have more meetings, get more done and leave more time for key decision making. These technologies have worked so well that they are becoming more embedded into our working culture.
Another unexpected benefit was that we have managed to raise money using these virtual systems, and because it has been more straightforward to speak to key investors in a time efficient manner, they have been more responsive.
One area we needed to think about was making sure our staff have a good work/life balance as they try to juggle work and families, in sometimes challenging home environments or if they need to travel to work in the lab, that this would be done in a safe way. We worked with them to ensure they had what they needed, when they needed it. So for us, it has weirdly been a positive experience in that we have organised ourselves to be more efficient and we have adapted to a new era, which in most cases, is better for our partners, investors and our staff!
What specific challenges has C4X Discovery experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic and how have you dealt with them?
Obviously as a drug discovery company we rely on partnering events, which we find fruitful, as they help us to meet potential new partners, catch up with current ones and understand what companies are currently looking at. We have had to find new ways of doing this virtually. This works well for contacts you know and can organise to meet. However, where this isn’t as efficient, is that you don’t ‘come across’ people at virtual events, and sensitive topics and themes cannot be picked up so easily. These off the cuff discussions can often lead to strong connections, but I am sure that the longer this situation goes on for, the more frustrations such as these will resolve themselves.
Other challenges for the industry have been delays where CROs haven’t been able to run things, so we, like everyone else, have had to wait longer. In particular, this has slowed down clinical trials as it is much harder to get phase 1 units working properly and to get people into hospital for volunteer work. However, for us at the earlier discovery stage, most of our work with CROs has been steady and moved forward.
There has been an understandable focus on near-term opportunities with COVID-19 – repurposing existing therapies or approaches. Do you think the pandemic will also drive real innovation in drug discovery? How so?
What we have seen in vaccine development is that the timelines have been sped up around clinical trial execution and the regulatory processes. There is potential for this to continue across all clinical trial and development work in the future, so we may see a more efficient and faster process as a surprising uplift from this pandemic. For example, the UK has set up an acting registry for trial volunteers for vaccines to make it more efficient and that may be adopted for future clinical trials as a whole.
Can you tell us more about the GEN-COVID Partnerships and how Taxonomy3 can contribute to the understanding of the disease?
The understanding of COVID-19 is still very naïve and we don’t fully know how it affects the human physiology and why it affects people differently. It’s clear that some ethnic minority patient groups and those with underlying issues such as obesity don’t fare as well as others, which means there is probably a genetic link. Therefore, understanding the role of genetics in this disease, which our Taxonomy3 platform does, may be key to understanding this disease better. We need to understand the susceptibility of how it affects certain patient groups as that will be important in how we treat not only COVID-19, but diseases of this type in the future. We hope that the powerful genetic technology we have will help us to decipher these different patient groups and unlock the important question of why it adversely affects some people but not others.
The COVID-19 pandemic has refocused attention on the value of pharmaceutical innovation and on the process for bringing new drugs to market. What do you think the lasting changes will be in how drug discovery and development is done in the future?
The focus on healthcare solutions for COVID-19 has been immense. The industry is working extremely hard to deliver either vaccines to prevent the spread of this disease or therapeutics to treat it, such as antibodies and dexamethasone. This unprecedented attention on the pharma industry has made the public more aware of the whole drug and device innovation cycle and has shone a light on the discovery process, giving the public a greater understanding of what it involves. I hope and believe that the pharma industry will be seen in a better light after this.