Cancer Research UK Cuts Biotech Collaborations Amid Pandemic Squeeze

The major research funder Cancer Research UK has cut development ties with two European biotechs as the financial impact of the coronavirus disease pandemic continues to bite.

Cancer Research UK (CRUK) is a prolific research charity, running a multitude of collaborations with academics and biotech companies around the world. However, the last month has seen the charity’s role quietly scaled back in two cancer immunotherapy collaborations; one with the Swedish firm BioInvent International, and another with the UK company Scancell.

The moves come shortly after CRUK announced in December it would have to halve its regular research funding with cuts of €51M. This stems from a dramatic fall in income as the pandemic forced the closure of charity shops and the postponement of major fundraising events such as the London marathon. 

In the case of BioInvent, the partners renegotiated a deal struck in 2015. According to the original deal, CRUK would fund and conduct part of the clinical development of BioInvent’s lead antibody drug in exchange for milestone payments and royalties from the Swedish company. 

Under the deal’s new terms, CRUK has reduced its role in the drug’s clinical development. BioInvent will pay CRUK a one-off €2.9M and is released from milestone payment obligations. Additionally, the charity’s royalties entitlement will be decreased. It’s unclear how the pandemic’s impact factored into the decision.

A few weeks after the announcement, BioInvent revealed promising data from a phase I/IIa trial, suggesting its candidate may at least partially boost the effects of the immunotherapy antibody rituximab in patients with drug-resistant non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The company reached its highest share price in 12 months on the release of the results.

BioInvent’s CEO, Martin Welschof, told me that the company was grateful for CRUK’s support in progressing the clinical development of the antibody drug.

We have reached a stage in development where it is important to have more flexibility to carry out development and partnering activities with [the candidate drug],” Welschof said.

Simplifying our commitments and licenses, such as this case with CRUK, gives us greater control over the program and provides the opportunity to generate more value for BioInvent from the broader development program across both liquid and solid tumors.”

Meanwhile, the pandemic’s squeeze on CRUK was more clearly involved in the case of Scancell. The partners decided to part ways in the development of the company’s cancer vaccine for patients with solid tumors. 

Scancell attributed the move to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and a re-evaluation of the collaboration by CRUK’s Centre for Drug Development. 

We evaluated all the options and both parties mutually agreed that bringing the partnership to a close and bringing the asset back into Scancell was the best way forward under the circumstances,” its CEO, Cliff Holloway, told me.

He added that the company was now evaluating how to best take its candidate forward, with the possibility of partnering with someone else. The company, he noted, is in a much stronger position financially since raising almost €55M in the latter half of last year. 

This all goes into the mix. We are a small company so we are looking at how we can best deploy our resources and the capital we have raised,” said Holloway.  

He noted that overall funding for biotech has had one of the best years on record during the coronavirus pandemic.

I think it has brought a focus on the healthcare industry and in the end, it’s going to be the healthcare industry that’s going to get us out of this and nothing else.”

At the time of publication, CRUK was unavailable for comment. The charity predicts that, if nothing changes in terms of government support or charitable giving, it will be spending €171M less per year by 2024 and will lose €342M in fundraising income over the next three years. 

Nonetheless, CRUK continues to support cancer research and startup creation, with one example being an ongoing partnership with the UK VC firm Deep Science Ventures. 

A lot of the research charities that rely massively on donations are in trouble,” said Kerstin Papenfuss, Associate Director for Therapeutics at Deep Science Ventures. 

Disease [treatment] charities are something that’s pretty special in the UK ecosystem, so having this part breaking away is quite tragic. I don’t think that a lot of people realize how much research these charities actually do.”


Cover image from Anastasiia Slynko

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