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London Notebook: Conversations Inside The Biomedical Golden Triangle

Xconomy National — 

Xconomy had reporters in eight locales when I joined in the spring of 2014. Since then, we have expanded into Texas and North Carolina, adding two more locales where we cover the life sciences and much more. We’re always looking for the next place to put down roots.

One big place on our radar is the United Kingdom, especially London and nearby Oxford and Cambridge, each about an hour from the capital. I went to London just before Thanksgiving to meet with venture capitalists, economic development officials, professors, and scientists to hear about what’s working, and what isn’t, in the area’s life sciences scene. I won’t pretend that this is a comprehensive survey, but the short trip was rich with on-the-record conversation and, at an Xconomy dinner with two dozen of the life science community’s leaders and thinkers, often spicy debate.

Topics ranged from real estate in London (too expensive, too scarce) to public transportation (did you know there is no direct rail line between Oxford and Cambridge?); from underpowered capital markets to the area’s leg up in clinical trials.

Those familiar with the decades-long soul searching in New York City, where an urban biotech cluster is now struggling to coalesce, might recognize several themes emerging from London and surroundings.

In both areas, there is a concentration of biomedical research and practice. There is international finance and philanthropy. And there is urban density, so prized in places like Kendall Square of Cambridge, MA—the ne plus ultra of biotech clusters—for letting people rub shoulders and exchange ideas informally.

Oxford and Cambridge are world famous for their academics, while London itself has three top life science research universities, University College London, King’s College London, and Imperial College London, which are also healthcare teaching centers. There’s also the Francis Crick Institute, “Europe’s superlab,” as Nature dubbed it, moving into massive new digs between the Euston and St. Pancras train stations near London’s historical center. Formerly the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation, it will be Europe’s largest biomedical lab. The Crick is also a big part of London Mayor Boris Johnson’s plan, now being carried out by the promotional group MedCity, to make the capital the third leg of a biomedical “golden triangle” with Cambridge and Oxford.

London also has more than 60 hospitals, many of which have specialties that make them centers of expertise for industry collaboration. Just last month, London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital, a children’s center, reported that an infant in its care had received a cancer therapy made from a donor’s genetically altered immune cells. The therapy, dubbed UCART19, came from a collaboration between French biotech Cellectis (NASDAQ: CLLS) and University College London.

It was an extraordinary case, not just because it was outside the bounds of a clinical trial—the therapy has not yet been tested in humans—but also because the child, at death’s door when her parents made the special request, recovered from her cancer.

The case had recently come to light when we convened our dinner, which was co-hosted by Johnson and Johnson Innovation and sponsored by London and Partners and MedCity. No surprise, then, that some guests were ready to counterpunch when I first asked what they would change in the London or U.K. life sciences community if they could wave a magic wand.

There was no shortage of suggestions. There was also a complaint that starting with such a question immediately tipped the conversation into the negative. It came from Sarah Haywood, chief operating officer of MedCity, so her agenda was no secret, but OK, fair enough. I’ll start here with one of the region’s strengths, something that struck me as unmatchable in the U.S.: access to a connected network of dozens of biomedical institutions, thanks to the U.K.’s nationalized health system.

The central record-keeping and collaboration across institutes is a big advantage for developers of drugs or medical devices looking to recruit patients for trials. The pool in London and beyond is vast and diverse, with 40 percent of the city’s population born abroad.

To make access easier, dozens of healthcare centers and institutes across London and surrounding counties that count 6 million people as their patients, have formed UCLPartners, the largest of what the U.K. calls its “academic health science partnerships.” Think of it as a two-way funnel. UCLPartners helps sort through promising research at its member institutions and license it to the outside world—like a tech transfer office on steroids. And it helps life sciences companies connect with its institutions’ clinical teams to design or run trials.

“We’ve harmonized the process,” said UCLPartners director of commercial development Joanne Hackett. When a big drug company or a clinical trials contractor like Quintiles Transnational (NYSE: Q) shows up with money, she said, “we sort it out.”

But making the region a top spot for clinical trials isn’t enough to make it a dense biotech cluster. For that to happen, local biomedical ideas have to … Next Page »

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