GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), one of the 2020 Science Careers Survey Top Employers, is a global healthcare company bringing together great science, new tech, and outstanding people. “We don’t just want to discover and develop new, better medicines and vaccines. We want to get better at finding them in ways that are faster, more effective, and more predictable,” says GSK’s head of pharmaceutical research, John Lepore. “At GSK we’ve built our R&D approach on the goal of doubling our success. And where has that led us? To the immune system.”
People steering great science
GSK is about two years into a new R&D approach rooted in immunology and genetics. “Immunological mechanisms are fundamental to the pathogenesis of essentially every disease,” says Lepore. GSK has a world class biopharma pipeline with more than 50 medicines and vaccines currently in development—a majority of which have immune mechanisms, across a range of indications. Importantly, medicines that target immune mechanisms very often have the potential to treat more than one condition because of common underlying traits among the diseases.
A focus on the immune system comes naturally to GSK as one of the world’s largest vaccine makers. For more than 20 years it has invested heavily in adjuvants—platform technologies that boost the body’s immune response. “GSK has invested heavily in developing a portfolio of platform technologies—for example, we have optimized adjuvant technology so vaccines can deliver benefits that were previously thought impossible, such as in people with a weaker immune system, older populations, or immunocompromised people,” says Emmanuel Hanon, GSK’s head of vaccines R&D. “Because adjuvants can also allow for the amount of antigen to be reduced 10-fold, this helps in a pandemic where we need as many vaccine doses as possible.”
Innovation through collaboration
A key tenet of GSK’s innovation approach is collaboration. “Our goal is to bring the outside in. We are constantly scanning the environment so we’re acutely aware of where science is pushing the boundaries. We then form partnerships with the scientists using the most innovative approaches,” explains Lepore. He noted that “the coronavirus pandemic has been an extraordinary example of the power of collaboration.”
Together with Vir Biotechnology, GSK is now developing a novel COVID-19 antibody that, importantly, targets a region of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that is less likely to mutate because it is maintained across multiple coronaviruses, suggesting it has a high barrier to resistance. As a dual action antibody, it was selected for clinical development based on the potential to both block viral entry into healthy cells and clear infected cells. Finally, the antibody has been engineered to achieve high concentration in the lungs to potentially ensure optimal penetration into airway tissues affected by SARS-CoV-2.
“What allowed the two companies to drive this program forward was our shared experience in immunology, a shared vision of how antibodies and immunological therapies can be applied, and then an intense focus on execution,” says Lepore. The result was less than a year after initially entering into the partnership, an Independent Data Monitoring Committee recommended the phase III study for the novel COVID-19 antibody be stopped early for profound efficacy as interim data from 583 patients demonstrated an 85% reduction in hospitalization or death in adults at high risk of hospitalization. GSK and Vir plan to submit an Emergency Use Authorization application to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and for authorizations in other countries soon. And in February 2021, GSK and Vir expanded their collaboration to include the research and development of new therapies for influenza and other respiratory viruses.
We bring the best immunologists in the world together to challenge one another and solve problems.
GSK has also embraced a collaborative approach for its COVID-19 vaccines by working with other biopharmaceutical companies. GSK is pairing its leading adjuvant expertise with the SARS-CoV-2 antigens provided by Canadian biotech Medicago and fellow Vaccine leader Sanofi. “By partnering with multiple companies, we are maximizing the chances of developing an effective vaccine,” explains Hanon. To help prevent variants of the virus, GSK is also working on new prevention approaches.
GSK and CureVac are developing next generation mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines that are aimed at including different versions of the spike protein as an antigen to address new mutations of the virus. “The goal of creating multi-valent mRNA vaccines could become a crucial approach to keep COVID-19 under control as it’s changing. We are benefiting from the acceleration of the mRNA technology through COVID-19 and will use that to give even better opportunities to protect against this disease and possibly many others in the future” says Hanon.
The power of partnerships
A broader—and more long-term—approach to partnership and idea sharing is evident in GSK’s Immunology Network, which started in 2015. It builds bi-directional, extended research collaborations between immunologists at GSK and the broader community.
“We bring the best immunologists in the world together to challenge one another and solve problems. The Immunology Network is about connecting people, and sharing access to information to advance immunology research, faster and better” says Louise Modis, a senior director in GSK’s Research team and the sponsor of the Immunology Network.
Core to the Immunology Network is a flexible sabbatical program that brings academics into GSK. A total of seven sabbaticals have been completed since 2016, lasting anywhere from a few months to a few years. “By collaborating we bring new and different perspectives together to find solutions,” says Modis. “Immunology Network members on sabbatical are called ‘catalysts.’ They’re catalyzing interactions—lowering the activation energy for GSK scientists to talk to the academics by helping us think and act in a more agile way.”
The Immunology Network has an external board of advisors who come into GSK twice a year for Immunology Summits. “Topics of the Summits are ones that are therapeutically relevant—on the cutting edge—where we try to advance our understanding of how to translate an idea to a medicine, or break through a barrier by sharing our learnings, regardless of affiliation,” says Modis. The output of the Immunology Network has run the gamut from new ideas, joint publications, building our network of experts who collaborate on our projects, training scientists and technology development, to influencing how clinical trials are run.
“In one instance we pursued a different disease indication in a clinical trial with a late stage asset. In another case, as the result of someone being on sabbatical with us, we explored a new concept in neural-immune interactions and have now advanced a new therapy into phase I clinical trials for osteoarthritis,” says Modis.
From the inside-out
Collaboration doesn’t just happen with partners outside the company. It also happens within GSK. “We are currently orchestrating the convergence of the vaccine and the pharmaceutical R&D teams of GSK to create a ‘biopharma’ entity that will focus on the science of immune system. We think there is a lot of opportunity in terms of combining the two modalities, and leveraging the expertise of immunology with the specific insights of drug treatment,” says Hanon.
One example of how the wider approach can potentially benefit more patients is clear from an asset that originated from the traditional drug discovery process to treat an autoimmune disease. But, through the close interactions between the pharmaceutical and vaccine teams, they discovered that the product could also be a vaccine adjuvant. “We’re going to be doing a lot more of this type of scientific collaboration as our two organizations come together in one new biopharma company,” says Lepore.
It’s an exciting time to work at—and with—GSK. “Our new R&D approach is focused on using the power of immunology, coupled with genetics and novel technologies, to find the next generation of interventions. Together with our collaborators, we’re working with incredible passion to bring new therapies and vaccines to patients quickly,” says Lepore.
GSK ranks among the top employers in Science Careers’ 2020 Top Employer survey. Read more