Successful Stakeholder Meeting boosts energy for future collaborative drug discovery

08 May 2018

On 16 and 17 April 2018 the European Lead Factory (ELF) Target Owner Workshop and Stakeholder Meeting took place in the heart of Europe, Brussels. An exciting row of speakers allowed for a retrospect on five years of successfully seeding and nursing innovative drug discovery projects. It also gave a hint about the future and how we can further grow the successful ELF platform to serve drug discovery for priority medicines.

The ELF Stakeholder Meeting brought together more than 90 participants from 60 different organisations, based in 14 different countries, reflecting the European aspect of ELF. The participants represent a broad group of involved stakeholders, ranging from policy and science to business and healthcare. An enthusiastic audience joined for more than ten presentations, discussions and multiple opportunities to network with programme owners and other experts.


Speakers highlight ELF as key player in collaborative drug discovery

“It started as an experiment…”

Dimitrios Tzalis (ELF Head of Chemistry) and Ton Rijnders (ELF Head of Screening) kicked off the Stakeholder Meeting. They introduced the European Lead Factory as a real pioneer in collaborative drug discovery. When ELF started recruiting the initial screening programmes, the concept was new to the community and questions were raised whether it could deliver on its promises. Dimitrios and Ton showed how ELF has now become a powerful drug discovery engine, by visualising the astonishing results and impact achieved in the past five years. Ton Rijnders: “It started as an experiment, that would be characterized by shared use of compound collections, crowdsourcing innovations, creating partnerships and generating value. Now I dare to say, when looking at these four items: we can successfully tick off all those boxes.”

“Globally there are many unmet medical needs that have to be addressed for patients in need. The primary goal of ELF is to deliver hit compounds that in turn can be translated into patents and drug candidates with the ultimate goal in mind to improve patients’ lives. ELF is a very good instrument to address this challenge, due to the fact that it provides the early drug discovery community with the resources required to identify and move potential drug candidates faster to the clinic.”
Dimitrios Tzalis, Taros​

To date, 88 disease-related drug targets from the wider scientific community have been accepted. More than 50 academic organisations and biotechs have already benefitted from a very significant kick-start to their drug discovery programmes. In addition, the prospect of owning intellectual property rights opens up many opportunities for further funding and business development.

“ELF is a proven opportunity. There are many examples of how it has been successful. What we’ve seen from ELF is very impressive, with quality compounds retrieved by industry standards. We would absolutely direct potential collaborators to ELF.”
Jan Kulagowski, Drug discovery manager at Parkinson’s UK​

“There are many examples of how ELF has been successful”

The results and the unique opportunity given by the European Lead Factory were illustrated by four target programme owners in their presentations. For Margit Mahlapuu (University of Gothenburg and spin-out ScandiCure), “the collaboration with ELF provided the missing piece in the puzzle”. She identified a new target which could be used to reverse metabolic complications in type 2 diabetes, but did not have the chemistry resources or the compound library available to screen against. She applied to ELF, which provided her with a potent, selective compound that could enable pharmaceutical validation of the target and provides a strong starting point for further development towards the clinic. Based on this, Margit successfully created the spin-out company ScandiCure which recently announced a partnering deal with Servier, an international pharmaceutical company.

Kamil Sitarz (Polish biotech Selvita) highlighted the significant impact that the European Lead Factory had on Selvita’s internal processes and its contribution to Selvita’s growth. Having access to the state-of-the-art infrastructure and the unique compound library has brought a wealth of opportunities for the innovative medium-sized biotech.

“We need to build trust and we need neutral platforms such as ELF to achieve it”

The European Lead Factory involves a very diverse group of organisations, all believing in the benefits of working together. Matthias Gottwald (Bayer) invests in public-private partnerships, because he believes in the value brought in by the big pharma, for example knowledge on the R&D process, the capacity and knowledge to validate targets and compounds, and insight in the regulatory process. He continued: “While the academic partners have deep knowledge of the disease, access to the most novel technologies, tools and ideas, a public-private collaboration brings the possibility to immediately translate findings to the clinic.”

One of the success factors of ELF is the trust that is established between the different partners. And an important learning, mentioned by many presenters, is that building trust takes time but that this always pays off. Matthias: “It can take up to a year to establish a trustful well working consortium to get the same understanding, it is important to invest this time.”

“I am a true believer in platforms that promote and drive open innovation. Building trust takes time in a complex arena, and maintaining it demands constant attention. We need to build that trust and we need neutral platforms such as ELF to achieve it.”
Pierre Meulien, Executive Director, IMI​

“Together we have built a game-changing platform”

Overall, the meeting showed how collaborative innovation provides the seeds for tomorrow’s priority medicines. This does require a long breath and a clear view for the future, as Jon de Vlieger (Lygature) explained: “Although we made lot of progress during the past five years, the unmet medical needs keep on pressing. The economic burden of disease has never been as high as today. The unique resources we’ve built and the expertise developed will change this situation if we continue to leverage the ELF model for the benefit of patients. So, let’s further grow this together. My take home message: We are just getting started, and the best is yet to come.”

Stefan Jaroch, European Lead Factory Coordinator (Bayer) concluded the meeting: “Together we have built a powerful platform for translating biological ideas into chemical matter that delivered high quality hit compounds. We have demonstrated that an intricate endeavor such as small molecule screening can be efficiently run in a pan-European consortium with a joined library and based on a solid legal foundation. Thanks to all who have contributed to and participated in our 5 year journey!”


Target owner workshop gives tools for early drug discovery

Prior to the Stakeholder Meeting, a workshop for programme owners and other researchers with innovative disease-related targets was organised. The aim was to prepare them to give their drug discovery programmes the best chance possible to make it to the clinic. The presentations by Peter Roevens and Chris Schofield showed that after five years, it’s safe to conclude that the European Lead Factory works and has resolved the doubts and uncertainties it had to face from the beginning. Programme owner Chris Schofield (University of Oxford /IMI ENABLE), for example, got the opportunity to collaborate with IMI’s European Gram-Negative Antibacterial Engine (ENABLE) project to further progress his programme on targeting antimicrobial resistance towards clinical development. This programme was based on highly potent and selective compounds delivered by ELF. Chris Schofield: “The ELF experiment worked exceptionally well, and exceeded my expectations.”

To be successful in drug discovery, collaboration between academic groups and biotechs and pharmaceutical companies is essential. Peter Roevens (Janssen): “It is still a long way from chemical starting point to patient. It is important to see key issues in a timely manner, always keeping the final product in mind. Addressing these questions one by one, requires an agile team that can flexibly pick from a plethora of experts depending on the question. The ELF and its Option Process facilitates the access of academic teams or emerging companies to all the expertise needed to reach patients.” To date, over 20 options have been triggered. Recently the first partnering deal with a pharma company was made, but more are expected in the near future.

In the different panel discussions, it became clear that the ELF framework leaves room for both patenting and publishing. An interesting question on patenting related to the right moment to patent. Chris Schofield delivered the ultimate conclusion: “What matters is what impact we have made in 25 years’ time. With ELF, we can make a difference.”