IMI Programme Office: Why was a project like yours needed in the first place?
David Henderson: From the point of view of the pharmaceutical industry, it has been clear for many years that one of the biggest problems in cancer treatment is that not all cancers respond to the same kind of treatment. We lack detailed information which allows us to take a measurement from the patient’s blood or their tumour tissue and find out enough about the biology of the tumour to say – the right drug for this patient is drug A and not drug B. We wanted to do something to improve the situation.
IMI Programme Office: Which project achievements are you most proud of as project coordinators?
David Henderson: We were able to collect tumour data in sufficient quantities and in a sufficiently high quality that we can now answer some of these questions. Our most recent large publication shows that it is possible to define a diagnostic procedure that will identify patients with characteristics which allow them to respond to a particular drug. In doing so, we have generated a set of tools for scientists in the laboratory that can be used in their search for new drugs and in the process of selecting the right drug for the right patient.
For example, as part of this project, we collected tumour tissues from almost 300 colon cancer patients and made a very detailed analysis of more than a 100 of these tumours. We now know everything about the genetic changes in these tumours and how they affect certain parts of tumour biology. We also developed cancer models in animals that allow us to much more accurately predict the effect of drugs on different types of colon cancer tumours.
Hans Lehrach: The holy grail of medicine is to be able to find the optimal treatment for each patient, maximising the effect of a drug and minimising side effects. In OncoTrack, we have not gotten to the end of that road yet, but we made significant progress in generating both data and materials which will help us make progress in that direction.
IMI Programme Office: Are patients already benefitting from the tools which you have developed?
David Henderson: Yes, they are. The analysis of tumour samples of more than 100 patients, which we have done as part of this project, is available to doctors treating these patients. So the doctors now know which particular mutations these patients carry. Also, for some drugs which are already in routine use in the clinic, such mutation analysis is becoming routine, helping doctors choose the right drug for the right patient.
Additionally, one of our academic partners, the Medical University in Graz, is already using methods which were developed during the project in an experimental setting in the clinic in order to find drugs that can potentially help patients for whom otherwise no treatment is available.
IMI Programme Office: Your project also inspired some spin off companies. Could you please tell us more about that?
David Henderson: Yes, one spin off was already created in 2014. It was created to commercialise the technology of the 3D culture of organoids. Organoids are little groups of cells that mimic the biology of the whole tumour. Generated from the tumour tissue, they grow in the culture dish and remain quite small. They are like micro-tumours, and they reproduce a lot of the biology of the tumour, including how tumours develop from stem cells. This is of great interest to the pharma industry because these represent a completely different target for drug development. These cells tend to be resistant to a lot of the drugs used to combat large tumours but if you can target the stem cells then you may have a better chance of eradicating the tumour. This spin off has been set up to commercialise this as a basis for drug testing.
The second company is being set up as we speak, the paperwork is in progress. This company has spun out from a group at the University of Paris, and they are intending to commercialise one of the technologies that we have been working on to improve diagnostic procedures at a technological level.
IMI Programme Office: Have any patents been filed during the course of the project?
David Henderson: Yes, several patents have been filed related to the development of diagnostic procedures. One of the major goals of OncoTrack was to find better ways to diagnose cancer, and several partners have refined the technologies that they have been using. All of the patents are currently pending.
IMI Programme Office: How did the pharmaceutical industry benefit from this project?
David Henderson: In several ways. The long term benefit, of course, is simply access to the materials and information which we have collected. This is information which can be generally useful in the search for new drugs.
There are also benefits from working together with this very varied group of scientists with different backgrounds and different experiences. In industry we have a different viewpoint than academics and we can learn a lot from each other. This interchange of ideas and philosophies is one of the benefits that you get from a project like this.
IMI Programme Office: Has the industry changed the way they do things as a result of this project?
David Henderson: One of the goals of the project was to generate improved biological models of colon cancer. We have achieved that, and some companies are now using these models for drug discovery and development projects. So yes, it has improved the way we do things.
IMI Programme Office: And how did the academic community benefit from this project?
Hans Lehrach: There are things which we couldn’t have done without OncoTrack. Companies contributed an enormous amount to this project and we got access to drugs which we wouldn’t have had. Also, we had a lot more information about mechanisms of drug action than we would usually have.
IMI Programme Office: It sounds like OncoTrack has really achieved a lot. Would you say that it has been transformative for the field?
David Henderson: We have laid the foundation for transformation by showing the advantage of the approach that we have used in the project. The project participants who have been working on technologies for diagnostics have made significant advances which can now be used to conduct measurements. We are now on the threshold of being able to apply some of these things in the clinic to the advantage of the patient.
IMI Programme Office: Would all this have been possible without the public-private collaboration brought by IMI?
David Henderson: No, because this was an extremely complex project. In order to be successful with this degree of complexity you need a lot of know-how and a lot of detailed knowledge, and you can never find all of this in one place. So the big advantage of a public-private partnership is that you can bring in the different types of detailed knowledge that are available in an industrial setting, in a biotech start-up or in an academic setting. When you bring these together, the sum becomes much greater than its individual parts.
Hans Lehrach: It would have been very difficult, because different organisations are good at different things. In principle, you can do everything in any setting as long as you have enough money available and enough time. But the most cost-effective way to solve a problem is to pool resources of different organisations which have their strengths in the areas which you need. I think it would have been very difficult to do everything we have done in any other format.
IMI Programme Office: What about the future? How can all the OncoTrack models and learnings now be taken forward?
David Henderson: The way forward is to create new projects which can build on the work that we have done. The information and the models which we have created will be available for future research projects. The electronic data is already in part archived and is available upon request, and the remaining data will be archived in the near future and also become accessible. The biological materials, especially the animal models and the cell models are available through the partners in the project who created them.