Together, we’re stronger: UCL and GSK fight lung disease

1 November 2011

UCL have teamed up with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), bringing industry and academia into agreement over a shared goal – tackling the fatal lung disease idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF).

lung disease

The ambition is to develop novel therapies to halt the progression or even reverse the damage of the fatal disease. Harnessing GSK and UCL’s unique strengths, the collaboration has a far greater chance of success than could be hoped for if either group worked alone. Together, they have the potential to save thousands of lives.

About idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis

Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis causes progressive damage to the lungs. Around 4,500 people, usually aged over 60, are diagnosed with it each year in the UK. Symptoms include breathlessness and a dry cough; and on average, people die within three years of diagnosis. There is currently no effective treatment or cure.


The UCL link-up is one of a network of collaborations between GSK and academic institutions called CRAFT, which also encompasses the University of Nottingham, The Royal Brompton Hospital, the University of Newcastle and McMaster University, Canada. This kind of teamwork reflects a fundamental change in the way big pharma works. The traditional model sees industry and academia working separately, chipping away at the same problem from very different perspectives. But Andy Blanchard, Director of GSK’s Fibrosis Drug Performance Unit, thinks it’s time for a change. “For far too long, drug companies have been so big and employed so many people that they felt they had everything they needed internally to execute drug discovery,” he said. “But it’s well documented that there’s been a lack of productivity in big pharma over the last decade. There’s a growing realisation that we know relatively little about the fundamental science that should underpin our drug discovery efforts. We need to harness existing expertise and integrate it fully – not just throw money over a wall to academic researchers and hope for the best.”

Integrated groups

The new way of working is a strategic alignment in which the parties have a close relationship. As well as a mutual objective, they share resources including technology, personnel and laboratory space.

Andy said, “We have weekly phone calls and meetings every few months. We wanted to make sure that the people at both ends can move interchangeably and work within each others’ teams. To this end, a member of my group, a GSK employee, spends half their time in the lab working at UCL and a senior research scientist from UCL has a pass and a computer account at GSK and spends one day a week here working with our scientists.”

Progress to date

The teams have already validated part of the pre-clinical rationale for a potential drug target, using diseased human tissue in assays. Both parties are delighted with the way things are going.

Rachael Chambers, Professor of Respiratory Cell & Molecular Biology, who heads up the UCL fibrosis research lab, is pleased to have GSK’s support, “By partnership with GSK, the platform technologies which can now be brought to bear on this disease are second to none. We’re accessing technology that previously we could only dream of, largely because of cost, but also expertise.”

Andy added, “From our perspective, it has already been a great success. We have got absolutely everything that we thought we would out of the collaboration, even though it’s fairly early days. We couldn’t be happier.”

This is one of many collaborations UCL has with GSK.