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Interview: Biomarker translation – is matchmaking the answer? 

Christopher Peters is Clinical Senior Lecturer and Consultant Upper GI Surgeon at Imperial College London. He spoke to MedCity Events and Community Manager Katarina Vargova about his special interest in biomarker discovery and translation, and how this relates to the inaugural event for MedCity’s Diagnostics Growth Hub on 16th November

Katarina: Chris, can you tell us a little about your academic work and how that fits into the inaugural event for MedCity’s Diagnostics Growth Hub? 

Christopher: Yes, I’m an academic surgeon, so I’m a clinician and I also have a research programme built around biomarkers, which are used to diagnose, predict survival of, or choose the best treatment for cancers.  

My interest in biomarkers stems from my PhD over a decade ago, where I generated a signature that could predict survival in oesophageal cancer. But what I’ve increasingly come to realise is that, whilst we do fantastic biomarker discovery in academia, not enough of that success is translated into improved outcomes for patients.  

We estimate under 10% of biomarkers reach the patient to improve survival or outcomes. When you drill down into, for example, biomarkers that predict breast cancer recurrence, we showed that less than 2% of those published end up being clinically adopted.  

Katarina: That really is a tiny proportion isn’t it? Can you tell us more about the work this realisation has led you to? 

Christopher: Increasingly, over the last five years, I’ve shifted my research programme to focus on why so many biomarkers are stalling, and where the gaps are in biomarker translation. The 2% of biomarkers I mentioned being used in breast cancer are really important, and are making a clear difference to patients’ lives. But the 98% that have stalled also have good quality, published evidence – they’re just not being put to use from a patient perspective. 

What we’ve identified is that one of the problems is making the jump from something that we can do very well in a university laboratory, to something that can scale up into our healthcare system and be used regularly as part of NHS care. 

Katarina: How does that success rate compare with other areas of diagnostic or treatment development? 

Christopher: Well, if you think about drug development, you might think it should be an area far more fraught with risks. There are potential side effects, bioavailability problems, interactions with other drugs – far more risks than simply taking a sample and conducting a test in a lab. And yet, the success rate for drug development is about 13% – almost an order of magnitude greater than biomarker success rate.  

We know that biomarkers can be really successfully used, and we know they can improve lives, so we just need to work on improving that success rate.  

Katarina: Can you tell us a bit about what you think some of the missing puzzle pieces are for academics working in this field? 

Christopher: Academics have really good access to patient populations and understanding of the disease. They may also have access to the technology that allows them to identify a gene they think is associated with a particular condition, but what they’re doing is usually low volume, very labour-intensive, academic lab-based work. Where we find there’s a gap between that and translating into the clinic, is often around things such as developing robust Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), doing very good biospecimen quality assurance, and moving away from doing everything by hand to automating it, using platforms that are already approved for clinical use.  

In a nutshell, the process needs to be robust enough to be repeatable time after time, with good quality results. That’s something industry do very well, but not necessarily easily achieved in an academic setting. 

Katarina: So, what do you think is the solution to progressing more biomarkers to the clinic? 

Christopher: One solution, we think, is to try and link up academics and industry earlier, so that they can begin to co-design these biomarkers. We think this will allow them to create a biomarker that is much easier to translate into the clinic, and one which is much more robust and reliable. 

Another part of the puzzle is the health economic analysis and the barriers to adoption analysis. Again, this is something that is often not an area of expertise for academics, but is where the involvement of organisations like MedCity and the NIHR London In Vitro Diagnostics Co-operative is vital because they can bring some of that expertise. 

Katarina: This idea of co-design chimes very well with MedCity’s Diagnostics Growth Hub, which was formed with the aim of encouraging collaboration between academics and industry, by providing a ‘one stop shop’ for diagnostics companies to access bespoke support. We’ve been planning an event together that brings this all together – can you tell the readers more? 

Christopher: Yes, our Biomarker Matchmaking Meeting will be the inaugural event for the Growth Hub, but it’s something we’ve been hoping to do for quite some time.  

At the meeting, we’ll have four academics who are at the relatively early stage of some fantastic biomarker research, and four very progressive, innovative companies with interesting biomarker technologies.  

They’ll each pitch their ideas and their technologies in a meeting and the hope is that this will, like a dating matchmaking event, kick off some beautiful partnerships. 

The four companies that we’ve got represented are like many, in that they really want to work with academia, but often struggle to make that initial link. We really hope that, by facilitating that introduction, we’ll catalyse some joint working that will allow the companies to improve the development of their biomarkers and maximise their chances of success. 

Katarina: And what are the opportunities for people to get involved? 

Christopher: We have the four academic and four industry presentations lined up for the first event, but, while the first event will be closed to additional companies, we’d be really delighted for other academics in the field to also attend, listen in, and join the conversation. 

We also envisage this being the first of many matchmaking events, so we are certainly hoping for more companies to put themselves forward for future events.  

When we look at those biomarkers that have been successfully progressed, they are often ones that have included collaboration between academia and industry at a very early stage. In the same vein, we think these events will be a really good opportunity for both academics and industry to work with, and learn from, each other. With companies bringing the technology and expertise in scaling up, and academia bringing new discoveries and vast access to research and patient data, this is a huge opportunity for both to improve their success rate. 

Find out more:

  • If you’re an academic in the field and would like to attend the first Biomarker Matchmaking Meeting on 16th November 2021; or 
  • If you’re in industry or academia and would like to register your interest for future Matchmaking Meetings 

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