As the world adjusted to the global pandemic, LifeArc has demonstrated how an integrated, collaborative approach can deliver impact.
As a charity, LifeArc exists to transform early stage, promising science into medical interventions that improve human health and benefit society. Our impact can be seen in new companies, technologies and medicines used to treat patients with a wide range of diseases, including multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis and cancer.
For a charity with the long-term ambition of becoming a leader in transforming the way diseases are identified and treated, the pandemic could easily have undermined our foundations and disrupted our progress. However, over the year we have demonstrated the ability to respond proactively to unanticipated change while also continuing to strengthen our efficiency and governance.
Our Keytruda monetisation in 2019 generated an unprecedented one-off inflow of around £1bn for the charity. The challenge for us is to make best use of it, so we can continue to support the translation of medical innovations over the long term. During 2020 Graham Duce, our Chief Investment Officer, supported by members of the Board, put in place an investment strategy for the monetisation proceeds, which aims to generate financial returns to underpin long-term sustainability.
While our financial security enabled us to withstand the impact of COVID-19, our employees adapted excellently to the challenges of working from home. Our core expertise in translational science, advice and funding enabled us to contribute positively to the scientific research that would help navigate a path out of the pandemic. The CEO’s review of our 2020 performance sets out our achievements in more detail, but I would like to highlight some of our major contributions to the fight against COVID-19.
Responding rapidly in a crisis
As a Board we felt that the charity should do all that it could in line with its charitable purpose to address the illness and death brought by 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 £2m to Edinburgh University’s STOPCOVID project; £10m for drug repurposing projects; £8m for a range of COVID-19 projects developed by teams within our organisation; £2m co-funding of CRUSH, a COVID-19 drug screening facility at Glasgow University’s Centre for Virus Research; and £5m towards the GenOMICC Consortium, which, in conjunction with Genomics England, is using 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 treatments.
Two recent developments in the fight against COVID-19 serve to show how LifeArc is helping to improve patient health; one the result of a traditional, long-term development chain, the other much more immediate and indicative of a change in how promising science is brought forward.
Towards the end of 2020 news broke about the re-purposing of the rheumatoid arthritis monoclonal antibody tocilizumab, as a treatment to combat hyperinflammation in COVID-19 patients. While LifeArc was not responsible for this study or research, tocilizumab is one of the four marketed therapeutic antibodies we’re involved in humanising. This is a poignant demonstration of the long-term nature of our work and how the impact on patients may extend well beyond the point where a project leaves our laboratories.
More recently University of Toronto’s ATACC (Antithrombotic Therapy to Ameliorate Complications of COVID-19) programme is close to changing how COVID-19 patients with blood-clotting issues are treated. The ATACC project, which was co-funded by LifeArc as part of our drug repurposing funding call, has demonstrated the potential of the blood thinner heparin to address clotting in moderately ill COVID-19 patients and stave off progressive deterioration.
LifeArc has a crucial and valuable role to play in identifying promising scientific innovations and facilitating their development as products for patient diagnosis, wellbeing and treatment.
The challenges affecting life sciences and the medical research charity sector, made even more acute in the COVID-19 pandemic, will continue for years to come. We believe that our ability to support the translation of innovative research in this way, especially in the UK, will only become more essential.
The Board is determined that in future LifeArc should make an even more substantial contribution to the translation of UK innovation. LifeArc is deeply embedded in the UK academic sector and we will not only continue to support the translational needs of our partners in universities, institutes and medical charities but will seek to leverage and expand these relationships strategically, to help deliver greater impact. Our core translational offerings of advice, science and funding remain at the heart of what we do but we will increase their potential by growing existing strategic partnerships, establishing new ones both in the UK and beyond and seeking to focus on more substantive and complex patient needs.
Our COVID-19 experience has challenged us to bring our collective resources together to tackle the significant problems of the pandemic; in 2021 we will build on that experience to evolve the way we prioritise and deploy our formidable capabilities. Our goal is to ensure that our impact is visible, not just in the products, publications or tools we generate, but in the improvement of patients’ lives.
I would like to thank our employees, our Executive Leadership Team and my fellow Trustees for their dedicated co-operation in overcoming the unique challenges of 2020 and setting the foundations for long-term success.