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30 June, 2022 - 21:06

UK on target to diagnose three-quarters of all cancers at an early stage by 2028

The Babraham Investor Conference (BIC) has returned to a full-scale in-person event following the Covid pandemic, writes Linzee Kottman.

The BIC 2022, an event for investors focusing on early-stage and scale-up life science and med-tech companies, was held at the Babraham Research Campus for the first time since Covid-19 forced the event online.

Derek Jones, chief executive of the Babraham Research Campus opened the event — now in its 16th successive year — to an audience of over 100 in-person and online guests. 

Former Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK and Head of Innovation for Johnson & Johnson, Sir Harpal Kumar, now President of GRAIL Europe - recently acquired by Illumina, delivered the keynote talk at the event.

A new world of early-cancer detection

The event featured an afternoon of presentations from a selection of guest speakers and start-up and scale-up companies. It began with the keynote from Sir Harpal in conversation with biotech entrepreneur Dr Andy Richards.

GRAIL is a healthcare company focused on saving lives and improving health by pioneering new technologies for early cancer detection. With a multi-disciplinary team of scientists, engineers, and physicians, they are using the power of next-generation sequencing, population-scale clinical studies, and state-of-the-art computer science and data science to overcome one of medicine’s greatest challenges.

Sir Harpal has had an extraordinary career and was knighted by The Queen for services to cancer research in 2016.

He outlined Galleri™, GRAIL’s simple blood test that can detect over 50 types of cancer, even those at a very early stage, through a single blood draw.

Sharing how the proprietary technology works, potentially before symptoms are present, he said that tumours shed cell-free nucleic acids into the blood, carrying signals specific to cancer. When detected, these signals provide insight into where the cancer is located in the body (for example, the lung or ovary). 

He explained how the company is working with the NHS on the largest study of multi-cancer early detection to help the UK meet its goal of diagnosing three-quarters of all cancers at an early stage by 2028. 

The randomised controlled trial involves 140,000 asymptomatic participants aged 50-77 living across England and, if successful, NHS England will roll it out to a further one million people in 2024 and 2025. 

Sir Harpal said: “You will all have had some experience of cancer. Unfortunately, there are common stories of the short timescale from diagnosis to death, weeks in some cases. 

“While we have a cancer screening programme in the UK for breast, bowel, prostate and cervical cancers, we do not have screening programmes for the cancer types which result in four out of five cancer deaths in the UK. 

“Wouldn’t it be great to screen individuals for cancer rather than screen for individual cancers? Many cancers are found too late, as symptoms present, often when they are more advanced and difficult to treat.

“If we can detect cancer pre-symptomatically, patients might be able to receive effective therapy and we can increase cancer survival rates for more people and improve quality of life.”

There followed a host of questions from the audience about the science and other applications for the technology. Sir Harpal expressed GRAIL’s commitment to changing the status quo of the current approach for screening and diagnosing cancer and that they are starting to “plan for a new world which has a ground-breaking, large-scale, population screening programme that has the potential to fundamentally transform early cancer detection and save lives.”

Sir Harpal concluded by saying: “We need to change healthcare. We need to change the way care is delivered. We need to change cancer. It’s not that far away, it’s on the horizon.”

Emerging ventures prove investors were right to invest 

The opening session was followed by equally inspiring presentations from companies such as Kalium Health, Somaserve, Phaim Pharma and PharmEnable, which included details of their scientific progress, future goals and investment opportunities. 

From commercialisation and licensing strategies, to strategic team hires and seed funding round announcements, the level of growth and innovation of these scale-up companies was palpable. 

Theodora Harold, CEO of Crescendo Biologics, a clinical stage immuno-oncology company, took to the stage to talk about the journey since spinning out of Babraham. 

Crescendo now has platform validation from major partnerships to the tune of $2 billion in potential milestones and royalties, as well as a proprietary pipeline of conditionally-activated, T cell enhancing bispecifics.

Theodora said: “We have been supported by the Babraham Institute and the Babraham Research Campus in so many ways; a PHD research agreement, the great shared facilities, biotech-friendly leases for labs, and our Head of Discovery came from the Institute. 

“We are building a world-class biotech company and are grateful to Babraham for supporting us throughout our journey.”

The next generation of start-ups reveal their talent

The latest cohort of life science start-ups to complete the 2021/22 cycle of Accelerate at Babraham, the Babraham Research Campus’ bio-incubator, then had the opportunity to share their successes, new partnerships, and pitch for funding. 

CamRegen, Creasalis, Medusa Pharma and Neobe Therapeutics, confidently presented their work and spoke of the support they had received from the Campus, external mentors, and companies based on site.

Derek Jones, chief executive of the Babraham Research Campus opened the event — now in its 16th successive year — to an audience of over 100 in-person and online guests. 

Dr Jones said: “They may have had the added pressure of a pandemic throughout the five-month programme but all made great strides to develop their business propositions, which in turn promises to change patient outcomes.”

A call to action

The conference ended with a message from Dr Anne Dobrée, Director of Programming at Cambridge Enterprise, who launched a new programme called ‘Cambridge Unlocked’ which allows students access and experience within the Cambridge Cluster who wouldn’t otherwise get it.  

She said: “Cambridge is one of the most unequal cities in the UK, and there are many students who don’t have connections or opportunities and we would like to help them to access these. Through Form the Future, schools will nominate specific individuals, who, because of their life circumstances, don’t have links within the Cambridge Cluster. We’ll introduce them to portfolio companies for work experience.

“We hope that a week’s work experience will inspire students and let them see what goes on in the wider cluster, giving them that first vital connection in the Cluster so, in the future, they will have someone to go to for advice and next steps. If this pilot goes well, we’ll be running further weeks throughout the year. It would be great to have everyone involved.” 

Cambridge Unlocked is actively recruiting companies to host a sixth-former for a week’s paid work experience at the start of the summer holidays. The companies will pay £500 to support the student. If you would like host a sixth-form student at your company, email anne.dobree [at] enterprise.cam.ac.uk 

The Babraham Investor Conference is supported by sponsors, Handelsbanken and Taylor Vinters.

Abot the author:

Linzee Kottman of Kottman Communications has managed large Non-Departmental Public Body (NDPB) press offices and stakeholder teams, worked with international blue chip brands and provides advice and support to PR agencies with large, national clients. Kottman Communications provides public relations advice, services and training for public and private sector organisations.

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