28 April 2022
Guest Conscience: Melanie Lee, CEO, LifeArc
Melanie Lee, Chief Executive Officer of medical research charity, LifeArc, details the work of the charity bridging the gaps between lab research and the patient by advancing early scientific discoveries to a point where they can be developed into the next generation of diagnostics, treatments and, potentially, cures.
What is LifeArc?
LifeArc is self-funded medical research charity, and our purpose is to make life science life-changing. We specialise in early translation – we bridge the gaps between lab research and the patient by advancing early scientific discoveries to a point where they can be developed into the next generation of diagnostics, treatments and, potentially, cures.
We do this in several ways:
- We seek out innovation, primarily in universities, charities, and start-ups; we help advance innovation through our own lab-based research, the support and advice we provide to our partners and the funding we make available.
- We collaborate as a trusted partner with a broad range of groups including medical research charities, research organisations, industry, and academic scientists.
- We nurture talent, developing expertise and skills in our people through accredited training and project experience while also helping to develop others through our fellowship and industrial placement schemes.
Following the monetisation of LifeArc’s Keytruda® for US$ 1.3bn, you have a unique funding source and a significant amount of capital to invest. What does that allow you to do that other can’t?
Our resources enabled our Board to commit to spend up to £1.3bn by 2030 to accelerate innovation. We are now able to do more and at greater scale to advance basic scientific discoveries into options that improve quality of life for those living with illness and disease.
We intend to use the returns on investment and draw down on funds to implement our bold 2030 strategy.
The UK has such a wealth of basic science in our UK universities but too many ideas don’t make it out of the lab. My mission is to help those innovators get their ideas to patients faster and help academic innovation to flourish, particularly in complex disease areas where patient need is not being met, where the potential or pathway for commercial return is not so clear-cut. So, for example our Philanthropic fund will support rare disease and ultra rare disease research, and our early ventures team will look at start-ups that need early-stage investment to develop and provide early validation of their propositions.
What do you see as the biggest opportunities and challenges in translating the UK’s science?
One of the greatest challenges is getting great science out of the labs and towards the clinic where they can address urgent, complex areas of patient need. In the UK academic scientists need greater access to translational skills such as advice on IP, regulatory and commercial development pathways and routes to patient, lab skills and translational infrastructure and of course funding to help advance their ideas.
This could be to treat a condition such as motor neurone disease or a broader area such as the serious intractable respiratory infections that affect people living with cystic fibrosis and bronchiectasis, or rare disease with no known treatment option.
For this reason, it’s vital that we accelerate scientific discoveries by nurturing and supporting novel research from talented scientists, clinicians, and entrepreneurs in areas such as gene therapy research.
Opportunities for innovation are also coming from developments in the ‘4 Ds’ – diagnostics, drugs, devices and digital solutions, all underpinned by data. Taken together these will transform the way diseases are identified, treated, and even prevented, and these have become key areas of focus for LifeArc.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw what can be achieved when diverse teams, experts, and organisations united behind a common purpose with a sense of urgency, and we hope that spirit and shift in mind-set can be applied to make a difference to patients with other fatal and debilitating diseases.
What are LifeArc’s priorities in the coming two to three years?
Our focus is to drive forward our strategy, making life science life changing, to deliver meaningful progress for patients. We will do this in partnership and through cross-sector collaborations, and not just within traditional life science boundaries, but also stretching into areas including tech, digital, engineering and data science. Our three strategic pillars guide our approach to put patients at the core of what we do:
- Supporting our partners (IWP) in other medical research organisations to advance the innovative science and ideas being explored by academia, charities, and patient groups. We will build on our legacy of creating successful partnerships to help ensure more innovations benefit patients and society, faster
- Progressing our Translational Challenges by uniting our collective strengths and resources with the expertise and funding of other life sciences partners to solve urgent, significant healthcare problems.
- Early ventures investment will help to bridge the gap between academic innovation and commercial funding and provide a much-needed source of investment for young companies developing new products and technologies with the potential to transform patients’ lives
You joined LifeArc in 2018. [Aside from the Keytruda® monetisation] What are you most proud of having achieved during that time?
Since I joined as CEO we have achieved so much as an organisation that it’s difficult to choose one thing that I am most proud of!
For all of us, 2020 was a challenging year, and the pandemic could have easily undermined our foundations and disrupted our progress. However, we demonstrated the ability to respond proactively to unanticipated change and brought our resources together to address COVID-19.
- By February 2021 LifeArc had committed more than £27m to fund the search for new medicines and diagnostics to tackle COVID-19. This included £10m for drug repurposing projects and £5m towards the GenOMICC Consortium, which, in conjunction with Genomics England, has used genomics to investigate why some people are affected more severely by COVID-19 and in so doing increase our understanding about the disease.
- We also provided our expertise to groups like the UK BioIndustry Association’s Therapeutic Antibody Taskforce and provided scientific due diligence for the UK Government’s Therapeutics Taskforce, enabling them to prioritise candidates for COVID-19 treatment.
At the end of 2021 we published our new strategic direction, setting out how we will change the way diseases are identified, treated, and potentially cured. This was the culmination of many months of coalescing new ideas and approaches. We now have the right team in place to help us transform patients’ lives and do so on an entirely new scale.
Where can we find you when you’re not focused on translating cutting edge science into patient benefits?
You will find me still convening with science and nature. Usually in the garden planting, tidying, and enjoying the fruits of my labours. Or walking the dog along the beach and in the park. And then there is exercise, which is swimming or Pilates these days.
Beyond your role at LifeArc, what’s exciting you now and keeping you busy?
I am always super busy. Animals and relatives get a lot of my time, and my new granddaughter is a delight!