GSK have more academic collaborations than any other UK headquartered company. We are constantly exploring innovative models to engage with top academics who might help to identify new medicines. Many of the collaborative programmes we have pioneered involve sharing propriety data and resources with trusted academics; this model has been amplified with the development of the Immunology Network.

Initiated in 2015 by Paul-Peter Tak – Chief Immunology Officer and Senior Vice President of the R&D Pipeline at GSK – the network incorporates a vision to combine the best academic science with the powerful drug discovery engine of pharma. Dr Tak assembled an External Immunology Board to propose academic immunologists who might benefit from a sabbatical as “Professor-in-residence” at the Immunology Catalyst at GSK’s campus in Stevenage. Seven leading academics from around the world were identified and embedded in the company for up to three years.

For GSK this is not about recruitment but innovation; we are asking them to challenge the thinking of our scientists, help to develop blue skies thinking and test basic scientific hypotheses.

The embedded academics have access to proprietary GSK platforms, compound libraries, data and internal meetings. Crucially, the academics also own any biology IP that they bring or develop whilst at GSK, provided that the IP is not based on existing proprietary GSK molecules. Joint publications are supported as a means of promoting leading edge science, and if an academic identifies translational work with commercial potential then they may access additional funding for “killer experiments” from an Immunology Innovation fund. This is a crucial component of the company philosophy: to be transparent with the external world when seeking to identify and validate new drug targets.

This open approach to science has already yielded tangible results and has enabled GSK to capitalise on emerging areas of science over the last three years.

For example, R&D business development divisions have been guided by the Immunology Network to re-purpose some GSK assets as potential treatments for specific diseases. In close collaboration with Dr Tak, Professor in Residence John Hamilton (University of Melbourne) made a scientific case to underpin the use of a monoclonal antibody to treat osteoarthritis in addition to rheumatoid arthritis. The antibody has now progressed to Phase 2 clinical trials and results are expected in 2018.

The information exchange between the visiting academics and the GSK scientists is very much a two way process. The academics gain an in-depth understanding of the drug development process and see, first hand, the quality of the research undertaken in the industrial laboratory. Whereas the industrial scientist gains access to new thinking from the academic which helps to shape their internal programmes. In sharing best practice, GSK aim to increase the rate at which translational research accelerates through to a commercial opportunity. The programme has been so successful in such a relatively short time period that the company are now considering this innovative model in other areas of science, such as in chemistry.


This article first appeared in the 2018 State of the Relationship report, commissioned by Research England and compiled and published by NCUB.