Reprinted from the latest edition of the BNA Bulletin with permission 

In May 2022, the BNA and the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre partnered on a hybrid event, ‘Improving translation in neuroscience’, at which representatives from academia, industry, funders and the regulatory sector discussed how best to accelerate the development of new treatments for disorders of the brain and nervous system. 

Brain and nervous system conditions are responsible for a huge global burden of disease and new treatments are urgently required. However, translation of academic research findings into new therapeutics is hugely challenging in this area, leading to high failure rates and a reluctance of many commercial organisations to invest in new drug development. 

The meeting at the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre (SWC) in London, part of the BNA’s ‘Building Bridges Between’ initiative, sought to examine the factors behind the slow rate of translation in neuroscience and how they might be addressed. 

A relay race 

Following introductory messages from BNA CEO Anne Cooke and SWC Chief Scientific Officer Tom Otis, Jina Swartz (MSD) offered a perspectve from someone with experience of both academia and industry. She likened translation to a relay race in which the baton is passed from academics to industry researchers within the same relay team. However, in reality, the process is less linear than this analogy implies, as clinical studies may generate results that require further investigation in the lab. Other stakeholders also get involved in the ‘race’, including clinicians and regulators. 

Dr Swartz highlighted factors that can influence the likelihood of successful translation. These include the reproducibility of pre-clinical academic findings, awareness of different processes and cultures across the two sectors, and differing attitudes to intellectual property and data availability. These factors highlight the importance of having shared expectations at the beginning of collaborations. 

Geraint Rees (UCL) emphasised the human dimension, arguing that successful translation is dependent on interactions between people across the research ecosystem. Success in translation will require a diversity of thought and expertise harnessed in support of common objectives. 

Professor Rees suggested that mechanisms were needed to promote collaborations across disciplines and to expose researchers to other environmental niches within the research ecosystem – for example, with lab researchers experiencing first-hand what clinicians or industry researchers do. Systems are required that promote and support these human interactions, such as technology transfer companies and translational research offices.

Translation in practice 

A panel discussion featuring Dr Swartz, Catherine Harmer (Oxford), Steve Wooding (Beckley Psytech Ltd) and Peter McNaughton (KCL), chaired by BNA Trustee Kevin Cox, outlined some of the key obstacles to translation in the neuroscience sector. Challenges include the volatility of funding (in academia and industry) and risks to academic careers when industry projects are halted. 

Neuroscience is a particularly difficult area for translation. Mechanistic understanding of diseases is often limited, biological markers may not be available, and symptom-based diagnoses may not be a good foundation for therapy development. Identifying appropriate outcome measures can be a critical regulatory challenge. In addition, unlike most disease areas, the window of opportunity for intervention may be many years before diagnosis. 

Looking back, looking forward 

After re-examining predictions made a decade ago, Ruth McKernan (SC Health Investors) suggested a range of possible future developments in neuroscience translation over the next ten years. These included increased use of patient data to guide treatment, more innovative approaches than standard randomised controlled trials to assess efficacy, and a greater focus on prevention and self-care. She also identified the likelihood of digital therapeutics, new treatments based on innovative molecular platform technologies, and new drugs based on emerging targets.  

The meeting concluded with a series of breakout groups, in which participants discussed how best to improve transparency, engagement and collaboration between academia and industry. Participants argued that relationships needed to be based on openness and trust, with agreed expectations from the outset. Opportunities were needed to strengthen personal relationships across sectors in order to build trust and share experience, and to promote mobility across sectors, in both directions during the course of a career. It was argued that an environment needs to be built that is supportive of this relationship-building across sectors. 

Translation in neuroscience undoubtedly poses multiple challenges. Yet, given large and growing disease burdens, the potential rewards are huge. Mobilising the insights and expertise of all kinds of researchers will be essential if these challenges are to be met.