Immunocore is one of the UK’s most exciting biotech companies. It is pioneering a new platform of therapies to target cancer, autoimmune diseases and infectious diseases
Using the body’s immune system to fight cancer has been one of the hottest topics across the world’s medical research community in recent years, and many companies are following different research routes to achieve that objective.
As a result of its research, Immunocore has become a leading T cell receptor (TCR) company thanks to its “immune mobilizing monoclonal TCR against cancer” (ImmTAC) molecules, which use soluble TCR technology.
However complicated this might sound to the layperson, Immunocore’s science is causing substantial interest across the scientific community and excitement among investors.
To those of us who are not bioscientists, it can be a challenge to appreciate the full complexity and potential of Immunocore’s technology.
What makes the company’s biological therapeutic platform unique is its ability to redirect the body’s own immune system to specifically destroy cancer cells.
Dr Andrew Hotchkiss joined Immunocore as Chief Commercial Officer last October, after a successful career with global pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. He took over as CEO following its previous incumbent Dr Eliot Forster stepping down from the post in February.
“I joined Immunocore because of the exciting science that underpins the technology. I believe that our platform and portfolio of products has the potential to significantly help patients,” he says.
Immunocore’s first lead product, IMCgp100, is currently undergoing clinical trials for the treatment of metastatic uveal melanoma (a cancer of the eye). This condition has an exceptionally high unmet medical need with no current standard of care.
“We believe this therapy has the potential to be a game-changer for medical practice in this devastating condition,” explains Andrew. “We’re optimistic that the encouraging data we have seen has the potential to read across to other ImmTAC programmes, especially when addressing difficult to treat tumours which have proven challenging for other therapies. We are excited by the possibilities of the ImmTAC platform in cancer and beyond.”
Immunocore is now applying its TCR platform to target autoimmune diseases, as well as collaborating with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop immunotherapies for infectious diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis.
Scientific investment drives results
The key challenge for any biotech company is trying to progress the science while securing the necessary funding to take that progress further.
“Immunocore secured early investment,” says Andrew. “And those investors have stayed with the company throughout our journey and are still with us.”
Belief in Immunocore’s technology platform has come from across the board.
In June 2015, it won the “Emerging Star of the Year Award” at the European Mediscience Awards. This is the largest annual gathering of private and publicly quoted healthcare, biotech and life sciences companies in Europe which recognises the importance of the capital markets to fund growth and innovation.
By July that year, with enough good clinical data for investors to believe it had something that could make a real difference to patients, the company completed a £205 million private financing round.
Other awards followed, and in September last year, Immunocore and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced their $40 million collaboration to develop immunotherapies for infectious diseases. that pose a global health challenge.
The biotech company also has a pipeline of wholly-owned and partnered products in development. Partners include Genentech, GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca and Lilly
The UK needs access to global scientific talent
Immunocore has gone through a period of significant expansion in the last two years.There are more than 40 nationalities working at Milton Park, drawn from academia and the biotech industry, and an office in Conshohocken, PA in the USA.
Andrew is keen that Brexit should not close off the UK’s access to talent, and that the scientists already working for the company maintain the confidence to continue to build their careers here.
He also flags up the fact that the European Medicines Agency is relocating from London to Amsterdam. “We must ensure that such change isn’t going to delay getting drugs approved for patients that need them.”
But he’s an optimist. “The life sciences are seen as one of the UK’s crown jewel industries and over the years the government has invested heavily in this area.
“We have good universities and a good science base. We have a good eco system and big pharmaceutical companies based here who are still investing. We have strong biotech clusters alongside the NHS which is a significant opportunity in itself in terms of data and running clinical trials.”
He added: “The UK has a high reputation for biotech and there is a great deal of trust globally in our eco system. You need a certain size and critical mass and I think we have that in this country. At the end of the day it’s all down to the quality of the science.”
The UK represents under three per cent of the global pharmaceutical market. While that could appear small in a global context, this country is widely acknowledged to be a very strong breeding ground for ideas and research.
“Intellectual property is undoubtedly the cornerstone of any business in the life sciences sector,” says Andrew.
“Establishing strong IP protection, for example through patent filings, increases the barrier to entry for competitors and provides confidence to potential investors, allowing businesses to further develop their technology and ultimately to bring products to market.
“At Immunocore, we have built a broad, multi-tiered IP portfolio protecting our platform technology and novel TCR-based immunotherapies.”
Immunocore was built on research and that won’t ever change, says Andrew. “We hope that within the next couple of years we can get our first product through to approval.
“In a decade we hope to have more products to market, maintaining leadership in our platform and fulfilling our purpose of producing transformational science that transforms lives.”
The cost of drug development
It can take up 12 years and £1.2 billion to develop a new medicine, according to Stephen Whitehead, Chief Executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.
“Much of the investment recouped by the industry is used to fund future research and development for new medicines that will benefit patients in the future.”