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Monday, December 16, 2013

An interview with GlaxoSmithKline's Dr. Jan Thirkettle


An interview with:

Jan Thirkettle, BSc, PhD
Head, Advanced Therapy Delivery
GlaxoSmithKline Medicines Research Centre

In anticipation of Phacilitate's 2014 Cell and Gene Therapy Forum to be held at the end of January in Washington, DC, I invited the Phacilitate team to provide blog readers with an interview of one of their upcoming faculty. The result is the very interesting Q&A thread you see below about GSK's call and gene therapy program combined with some of his thoughts on the sector.  

Phacilitate: You head the Advanced Therapy Delivery group at GSK – please could you outline your specific goals and activities as an organisation for us? Which projects/technologies are you prioritising currently, and why?

Dr. Thirkettle: Our immediate priority is to deliver the Chemistry, Manufacturing and Controls (CMC) aspects of a collaboration we already have for an investigational ex vivo gene therapy currently in late stage development with TIGET, the San Raffaele Institute for Gene Therapy in Milan. 

Through this collaboration we believe that we have a responsibility to complete the process for development of gene therapy, get it to file and make it available to more patients. We are really excited by the clinical data which TIGET have generated on the current programs thus far, but this is also laying really important groundwork for how we will work on other products in that collaboration and giving us real insight into the issues which we need to tackle in order to be able to progress following opportunities in this collaboration and make these autologous therapies more scalable.

This feeds into our second priority, which is to develop more efficient manufacturing technologies that can allow us to reduce the cost of goods, reduce the complexity, and increase the scalability of ex vivo gene therapy products. This is important within our existing collaboration but also it is going to be critical to allow us to engage with other opportunities which might have larger patient numbers.

Thirdly, whilst the immediate focus of our group is on the CMC aspects (process development, vectorology, cell characterisation, QC), we are also very focussed on working across the GSK platform organisation to leverage the expertise we have from our pharma and vaccine background and which is relevant to this area. This engagement and strategic planning is also critical to make sure that we build expertise in all of the other really key functions; for instance, this is an area where really strong understanding of the regulatory and the quality aspects is absolutely critical.

Phacilitate: This January, you will be joining a panel of big pharma representatives tasked with answering the questions of whether 2014 is the year pharma get serious about Cell & Gene Therapy, and whether it has been a lack of innovation or a lack of proven products that has held them back in the past - what’s your initial response to these questions?

Dr Thirkettle: I’m not sure it’s fair to say that big pharma has yet to get serious, if you look at the investments and deals of the past 3 years. I certainly don’t see any lack of innovation out there, it is almost the opposite. We talk about cell and gene therapy as a modality, but it is a huge, broad field; as broad as ‘biopharmaceuticals’ which is a field with many approaches and technologies. 

Within the cell and gene therapy field we have a very large number of modalities, different cell types, different approaches, and a huge diversity of technologies. And they are all evolving at a really blistering pace. So one of the challenges for anybody who is outside of the groups who are really driving that core science is to know which is the right bit to grab hold of and it’s not the sort of area that you can just dabble in if you want to be really be effective and add value.

Rather than lack of innovation, then, the challenge is maybe more of knowing how to pick the winners at the right time and understand the potential utility of that technology/product at this early stage. I think the key thing is that it requires a number of elements to come together; you need the biology and the underpinning science to be strong; you need a therapy with good clinical data to really evidence that and discharge some of the risk; and then you need an understanding of how broadly applicable that technology might be - is there some sort of platform that sits behind it that spreads your risk? And finally, you need an understanding if whether you can actually make that product, can you scale it up?

Phacilitate: You are also kindly chairing a session which explores the long-standing but still critical challenges in developing cost effective and robust manufacturing models for cell & gene therapies at industrial scale. What progress do you see being made in this regard? To what extent will it be a case of these problems being solved relatively quickly and easily as big pharma come on board more and more, as some have suggested?

Dr Thirkettle: There are some massive challenges, but I suppose I would never underestimate the ability of really committed scientists, whether from academia or biotechs or big pharma, to solve those problems given enough focus and time.
I think the key is creating a focus because in a way it goes back to the previous point - this is a hugely broad field. When you stand back and look at this mass of really exciting science and opportunity, the challenge actually is to understand where to focus that investment in time and money. It becomes an awful lot easier to create that focus and energy to invest where you have got really compelling clinical data - you know you have got something that can potentially be a product. Equally if you can have confidence that a technology has multi product utility, your ability to invest is that much greater. If you can make a strong case on either of those points then you’re in a good position to create the focus needed to drive investment in the manufacturing and commericalisation aspects.

Phacilitate: Finally, what are you hoping to get out your participation in the meeting this January?

Dr Thirkettle: I’m really hoping first of all to meet lots of other people who are facing the same challenges and learning the same things. I think it is really exciting to see the journey over the past few year with increasing discussions around “How do we make these therapies? ” rather than “Will these therapies ever work?” This is a field which would potentially be greatly enabled if there players could find a way to share learnings as much as possible about what works and what doesn’t. There is a huge opportunity to work in a pre-competitive mode. It is in everybody’s interest because there are so many challenges, so many things to learn. I think this is a forum which makes it really easy to have those conversations, and start to build those relationships that, ultimately, should help everyone.