Astex Pharmaceuticals

A Message from Lord Pickles and Lord Blunkett, followed by Astex Pharmaceuticals's best practice article

The ability to listen and learn from one another has always been vital in parliament, in business and in most aspects of daily life. But at this particular moment in time, as national and global events continue to reiterate, it is uncommonly crucial that we forge new channels of communication and reinforce existing ones. The following article from Astex Pharmaceuticals is an attempt to do just that. We would welcome your thoughts on this or any other Parliamentary Review article.

Blunkett signature Rt Hon The Lord David Blunkett
Pickles signature Rt Hon The Lord Eric Pickles

Highlighting best practice
President and CEO
Astex’s R&D headquarters is
on the Cambridge Science
Having merged with a US-based firm in 2011, before being
acquired by Otsuka Pharmaceutical, Astex Pharmaceuticals
now have access to a global market. Originally focused
on developing a platform that pioneered a new approach to
discovering small-molecule medicines, they have since diversified
to focus on the fields of oncology and neurodegenerative
disorders. In 2017, their first drug from a collaboration was
approved and brought to market by Novartis. CEO and Founder
Dr Harren Jhoti tells
The Parliamentary Review
about the
development of this new approach and the challenges that
biotechnology companies face in becoming public companies.
Originally founded as a biotechnology company supported by venture capital
funding, we were set up to explore a new approach to discover small-molecule
medicines. We developed a process that is now accepted as being more efficient,
using a fragment-based discovery method to find new drugs. I am one of the
founders of the company, alongside two Cambridge professors, supported
originally by venture capital investors from both Europe and the US.
We began by constructing a technology platform, which assisted in developing our
fragment-based approach. Using this platform, we discovered compounds, which
were then tested clinically as potential treatments for various cancers. As our clinical
development activities grew between 2005 and 2010, we needed to access larger
amounts of capital, so our focus shifted towards becoming a public company. This
was one of our biggest initial challenges, as UK-based biotech companies often
struggle to complete initial public offerings on the London financial markets.
»President and CEO:
»Established in 1999
»Based in Cambridge with a
site in California
»Services: Pharmaceutical
research and development
»No. of employees: 140
in Cambridge and 100 in
Astex Pharmaceuticals
courtesy of Astex”
Therefore, we decided to go public
via the US when, in 2011, we merged
with a California-based company,
which allowed us to become listed on
NASDAQ and access a greater pool of
capital. This company was previously
known as SuperGen, but the newly
merged company was named Astex
Pharmaceuticals. In 2013, we were
acquired by Otsuka, a pharmaceutical
group based in Japan.
The strength of our approach
The key element of our approach is
a more efficient way of finding new
small-molecule drug candidates.
Rather than screening more-complex
molecules, we study much smaller
entities, called fragments, focusing
on how these small building blocks
bind to the drug target. We use a
technique called x-ray crystallography,
the same method Watson and Crick
used to identify the DNA double helix,
to generate a 3D structure of the
fragment bound to the drug target.
By examining this 3D structure, we
can see how to “grow” the fragment
into a new drug candidate by iterative
cycles of medicinal chemistry.
We focused on oncology during our
early years and established many
collaborations with UK academic
groups funded by Cancer Research
UK. Between 2003 and 2007, in order
to bring capital into the company and
establish third-party validation of our
novel approach, we partnered with
big pharmaceutical companies. This
allowed us to receive significant upfront
payments and to work collaboratively
to bring drugs to the marketplace.
Two years ago, we had our first drug
approved in the US and Europe,
specifically targeting breast cancer,
called Kisqali. This was developed in
collaboration with Novartis and marked
a major landmark for the company.
It is very rare for biotech companies to
develop successfully a new approach
that leads to a drug being brought
to the market. We also have other
drugs that are being developed
in collaboration with different
pharmaceutical companies, as well as
our own internal programmes that are
being supported by Otsuka. This hybrid
business model, which has both in-
house and partnered programmes, has
proven to be very successful for us.
The importance of accessing
the public market
The main benefit that came from our
merger and subsequent acquisition
was assistance in accessing larger
amounts of resources to progress
our in-house programmes. Our
acquisition by Otsuka was driven by
their desire to have a greater array of
21st-century technology platforms.
We were acquired for $886 million,
one of the largest acquisitions in the
pharmaceutical/biotech sector in 2013.
This has allowed us to invest more
in our research and development
activities, and, in the last three years,
we have increased our footprint to
span both oncology and drugs to
combat neurodegenerative disorders.
Astex is recognised as
a pioneer and global
leader in fragment-
based drug discovery
As an
it is essential
to be flexible
with your
plan and to
build options
that can lead
to multiple
Highlighting best practice
As an entrepreneur, it is essential to be
flexible with your business plan and to
build options that can lead to multiple
opportunities. Key to this is remaining
open to collaboration, particularly as
the current pharmaceutical industry is
very conducive to this.
Becoming public companies remains
a major challenge for biotech firms
in the UK. The government has
attempted to help the sector, but it
remains very difficult to achieve this.
This is a primary reason why many
companies choose to go to the US. I
would argue that this is the foremost
problem in the life sciences sector in
the UK today. While big steps have
been made to solve the lack of funding
for turning academic research into
commercial practice, what was known
as the “valley of death”, challenges
remain at the other end of the process.
Although it may be easier to secure
money in the early stages, it is more
difficult to attract further funding
later on; without this funding, we
will not be able to build and scale UK
biotechnology companies.
The danger of long-term
The other two issues that affect our
sector are Brexit and recruitment.
Research and development in science
is a global business, and we are
already experiencing issues related to
Brexit: it is clear that some people are
not applying to positions because of
uncertainty. As we are now part of a
multinational organisation, we have
greater flexibility; in the short term,
I do not think there is a significant
threat to a research-based organisation
like ours. My worry is more for the
mid- to long-term effects, especially
if our traditionally strong UK science
base begins to erode.
Despite Brexit, we are now looking
to expand our presence in the
area of neurodegeneration and
central nervous system disorders. If
I compare the current state of the
neurodegeneration sector to the
cancer field 30 or 40 years ago, there
are many similarities. There are a lot
of challenges in understanding what
goes wrong in some of these disease
states, but there is now fundamental
academic research that is beginning to
shed light on these issues. We want
to be part of this going forward, and,
supported by Otsuka, who have a large
global presence and provide medicines
for psychiatry, we hope to discover
some new-generation drugs to help to
combat these diseases.
We were
acquired for
$886 million,
one of the
acquisitions in
sector in 2013
Astex has built a rich
product portfolio with
multiple drugs in clinical

This article was sponsored by Astex Pharmaceuticals. The Parliamentary Review is wholly funded by the representatives who write for it. The publication in which this article originally appeared contained the following foreword from Rt Hon Michael Gove.

Rt Hon Michael Gove's Foreword For The Parliamentary Review

By Rt Hon Michael Gove

This year's Parliamentary Review comes at a momentous time for parliament, as we collectively determine the destiny of the United Kingdom. 

On October 31, the UK will leave the European Union. The successful implementation of this process is this government's number-one priority.

Three years after a historic referendum vote, we will deliver on the decisive mandate from the British people. Trust in our democracy depends on it. Until that final hour, we will work determinedly and diligently to negotiate a deal, one that abolishes the backstop and upholds the warm and close relationship we share with our friends, allies and neighbours in the EU. But in the event that the EU refuses to meet us at the table, we must be prepared to leave without a deal.

As the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, it is my job to lead on this government's approach, should that scenario happen. Preparing for Brexit is my department's driving mission. But while I am leading this turbocharged effort, the whole of government is committed to this endeavour.

Ministers across Whitehall are working together to ensure that every possibility is considered, every plan is scrutinised and every provision is made. A daily drumbeat of meetings means that we are holding departments accountable, so that preparations are completed on time.

The chancellor has confirmed that all necessary funding will be made available. And we have mobilised thecivil service, assigning 15,000 of our most talented civil servants to manage our exit from the EU.

We will make sure that on November 1, there is as little disruption to national life as possible. Our trade relationships will continue to thrive, thanks to agreements with countries around the world worth £70 billion. Our country will remain secure, thanks to nearly 1,000 new officers posted at our borders. And the 3.2 million EU nationals now living and working among us can remain confident, with absolute certainty, of their right to remain in the UK.

Above all, our goal is to be transparent. Soon, we will launch a public information campaign so that citizens, communities and businesses are ready and reassured about what will happen in the event of “no deal”.

In my first few weeks in this role, I have travelled to ports and tarmacs, borders and bridges, all across the UK –from the seaside of Dover to the rolling green hills of County Armagh. I have heard from business owners and border officials, farmers and hauliers. They are ready to put an end to uncertainty. And they are ready to embrace the opportunities ahead.

Our departure from the EU will be a once in a lifetime chance to chart a new course for the United Kingdom. Preparing for that new course will be a herculean effort. But this country has made astounding efforts before. We can do it again.
Rt Hon Michael Gove
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster