How to overcome the clash of cultures
Developing a new drug is a long and expensive process.
“Researchers need help to access the expertise necessary to develop drugs, and people like me can help”, says Lars Hedbys, who has long experience of working in industry.
Who is he and what does he think of collaboration between industry and academia?
Meet the man who is taking over from Sylvie Bove on the LUDC Innovation Board and is in charge of setting up a structure for Diabridge.
Lars Hedbys has a long career at AstraZeneca behind him. There he worked in clinical research and development, project management and as site manager until 2003. He has since been CEO of various small biotech companies.
“I am very interested in leadership and working in areas good for society. If I could contribute to the development of new drugs or diagnostic methods I would be very pleased”, he says.
What is life?
An interest in maths and biology led him to enrol at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg. During his engineering studies, he developed an interest in the philosophical aspect of biotechnology and biochemistry: what is life? Where is the boundary between life and molecule?
“That was in the late 1970s and people were starting to see the potential of genetic engineering”, says Lars Hedbys.
Since there were no courses in biotechnology at Chalmers, he moved to the University of Gothenburg instead, thereby tailor-making his own engineering degree.
Wanted to work in industry
At the end of his degree, he decided to do a PhD.
“I wanted to do applied research; I foresaw a career in industry”, he says.
After a bit of searching, Lars Hedbys found what he was looking for at the Faculty of Engineering in Lund, where he continued with applied biochemistry and various research projects under Professor Klaus Mosbach.
His thesis ended up being about glycosidases in carbohydrate synthesis. The natural function of glycosidases is to break down carbohydrates, but Lars Hedbys found methods for running the reaction in reverse, with the aim of producing complicated carbohydrate structures.
Tested new drugs
Continuing with a research career was never a consideration; instead, industry beckoned. As a clinical research associate at pharmaceutical company Draco, which was part of the Astra group, he worked on clinical trials of new drugs, i.e. testing the drugs on humans.
Lars Hedbys started there in 1989, at the same time as Losec came onto the market, later becoming the world’s best-selling drug.
“It was a fantastic time! There was money available for development, scientific quality was important and the highest possible safety consciousness was observed”, he says.
Rhinocort for allergic rhinitis and Pulmicort for asthma and COPD were two existing drugs that were tested for new groups of patients.
After a year, he was promoted to clinical research manager and then continued with a management career. Bricanyl, Bambuterol and Symbicort are other drugs that he has worked on over the years, all for treatment of asthma and/or COPD.
Difficult to reach the market
Of all the drugs tested on humans, less than ten per cent make it onto the market, estimates Lars Hedbys. Before that point, many fall by the wayside because they are toxic, instable or impossible to manufacture on a large scale.
“It starts with an idea – can a certain protein be activated or blocked to treat a specific disease? Then you develop a number of test molecules that show that you can, for example, block the protein, and on that basis you start to chemically alter the molecules.
“In order to develop a candidate drug, hundreds, sometimes millions, of molecules have to be tested.”
Previously, early drug research was largely carried out in the pharmaceutical industry. Today the situation is different.
“Early drug development has moved to academia owing to the need for industry to cut costs”, says Lars Hedbys.
He says that even validation of the drugs, i.e. determining whether the mechanism is relevant in humans and not only animalsare sometimes transferred from industry to academia.
Strong innovation activities in diabetes
Lars Hedbys is a member of the Innovation Board at Lund University Diabetes Centre, which comprises researchers and representatives of business and industry. The aim is to reinforce the work on innovation at LUDC and to identify projects that have commercial potential, i.e. that could be developed into a product or a drug with the right support. The board provides advice on innovation issues and makes recommendations for which projects should receive financial support from Exodiab’s innovation fund (Exodiab is one of the Government’s strategic research areas with a focus on diabetes and a collaboration between Lund University and Uppsala University).
He has also taken over responsibility for Diabridge from LUDC’s former innovation officer Sylvie Bove.
“The idea of Diabridge is to facilitate collaboration between industry and the research projects that could lead to projects of commercial interest or patents”, he says.
Discussions are underway between LUDC, Vinnova and Lund University Innovation System, and during the spring the next step is expected in the realisation of Diabridge.
What is it they look for in a commercialisation project? Lars Hedbys mentions a range of criteria that form part of the assessment process:
“The most important thing is whether the discovery is patentable. Can it be patented? What is the competition like? What medical need is there? What is the potential for manufacturing a drug from the findings? How can the next experiments be performed in academia to make it attractive?
“Researchers also have to ask themselves if they want to commercialise their discovery. Spending a significant amount on effort on developing a commercially important project can be rewarding but runs the risk that the researcher looses focus on the research.
Expensive and time-consuming
Developing a drug can take 10–15 years and cost USD 1–4 billion. Development projects involve hundreds of experts. Lars Hedbys explains that a huge team with different skills is required: pharmacologists, biologists, chemists, health economics experts, and regulatory experts who understand the authorities’ demands, to name but a few.
“There are many people involved in the production of a new drug.”
Lars Hedbys has a long career in the pharmaceutical industry behind him and is aware of the difficulties that may be encountered in new projects, whether starting companies, understanding the conditions for entrepreneurs or understanding how the pharmaceutical industry thinks.
“The objective for academia is to generate new knowledge. Sometimes, knowledge comes about in an unexpected area, and in academia it is perfectly rational to change the direction of your research. In industry, there is always a commercial strategy with long-term financial logic and planning. For industry, it is extremely important that results are achieved quickly. It is also extremely important that collaboration delivers in line with the decision that has been taken, even if the science is not the most exciting. This produces a clash of cultures”, he says, going on:
“It is important to see the advantages for both parties when you enter into a project – both that it fits into the overall research strategy and that the industrial partners get value for money. These do not have to be mutually exclusive, but both need to be fulfilled.”
Lars Hedbys stresses the need to be clear on one’s expectations when entering into a collaboration with industry, in regard to what is to be delivered, the details of the expected delivery and the deadline for completion.
Advisor to authorities
Since 2006 he has been a partner in Ventac Partners, which advises authorities, universities and corporations on life science in general and the commercialisation of medical research.
“There are around 15 of us, slightly grey-haired and with different areas of expertise, such as patent attorneys, marketing specialists, pre-clinical researchers and market analysts. We have two main focuses: one is our advisory role in drug development, diagnostics and medical technology, the other is starting companies at regular intervals. The reason why we are operational is that we like working ‘for real’ and we thus ensure our credibility by not only acting in an advisory capacity.”
The business idea is to start companies, refine the concept, make a certain amount of progress and then sell the company on to a pharmaceutical company.
Cure for autoimmune disease
One of the companies started by Ventac Partners is Idogen AB, based in Lund, for which Lars Hedbys is the executive chair of the board. The company is working on a method to induce immunological tolerance.“If we are successful, we could at best cure autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes” says Lars Hedbys.“It sounds like a dream, but until there is proof to the contrary it’s a reality. However, we have a way to go yet…”The company was founded in 2008. If it takes 10–15 years to develop a drug, Lars Hedbys and his colleagues have reached the half-way point.“Come back in ten years and we’ll see how things have gone!” Sara Liedholm
Doctor of Engineering in Biochemistry, partner in Ventac Partners, a biotechnology company that works on issues concerning commercialisation, strategy and analysis for authorities, universities and life science companies. Had a long career in R&D at AstraZeneca, where he worked on clinical research and development and with project management. Site manager until 2003. Since 2003 he has worked with smaller companies:
CEO, Synarc A/S, a contract research company
CEO, Mando AB, a group of privately owned clinics that treat patients with eating disorders
CEO, Glycorex Transplantation AB (listed medtech company)
Co-founder of pharmaceutical companies in Lund, Amsterdam and Hong Kong Chair of the Board, Idogen, a company working on a treatment to cure autoimmune diseases
Chair of the Board, Lund Life Science Incubator, a ‘home’ for small, newly started companies in life science that need access to labs and business development assistance.