The chasm between industry and academia is shrinking, with the UK fast becoming a powerhouse for cutting-edge global health research, writes Mark Samuels

There has been a noticeable shift in pharmaceutical research. Where previously the tendency was for academics to operate on one side and industry on the other, now there is a move towards a more collaborative way of working that benefits all.

Greater collaboration is particularly beneficial in early drug discovery, where many firms have good drug assets but do not always know the basic mechanisms of disease. Academics often hold this very knowledge so collaboration gives the best possible chance of making new breakthroughs.

The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is responsible for clinical research in the NHS across England; with an annual budget of more than £1 billion, it is the world's second largest government funder of health research. With expert researchers, research facilities and technology embedded in the country's leading NHS hospitals and universities, it offers the world's most integrated health research system and is primed to work collaboratively with industry.

We offer industry pre-formed collaborations; we launched our Translational Research Partnerships four years ago in direct response to feedback from pharmaceutical companies that told us that industry found it very difficult to work effectively in experimental medicine in the UK. Currently, there are two partnerships in place – in inflammatory respiratory disease and in joint-related inflammatory diseases.

Translational Research Collaborations were established to tackle experimental medicine challenges in dementia and rare diseases. A further collaboration is in early development focusing on cardiovascular research. Collaborations in cancer and nutrition and gastrointestinal research are under consideration.

These collaborative models offer industry access to well-defined patient cohorts, leading academic expertise, specialist research kit and coordinated working across multiple centres throughout the UK.
We have already seen engagement from big pharmaceutical companies including Roche, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Janssen, and many more are realising the benefits that such collaborations can offer.

To help companies navigate its infrastructure, and to boost opportunities for collaboration, the NIHR established the Office for Clinical Research Infrastructure (NOCRI). Our translational research infrastructure has seen annual investment by industry quadruple over the last five years, rising from £33 million in 2009/10 to £130 million in 2014/15, with the number of industry studies supported by the NIHR increasing almost six fold, from 514 to 3,008 studies.

With a direct and simple route to research facilities and experienced specialists, we encourage industry to engage at the earliest opportunity. This way, we can ensure that companies gain access to the right expert investigators and centres of excellence, which can provide valuable insight into early and exploratory drug development.

In addition, because the NIHR infrastructure is embedded within the NHS, it is close to the patient offering access to a broad patient population, an essential requirement for in-depth proof-of-concept and proof-of-mechanism studies.

Case study: new approaches to rheumatoid arthritis 

Anti-TNF treatment is the current standard therapy for rheumatoid arthritis, yet around 30 percent of patients fail to respond so there is a clear clinical requirement to better understand which patients will benefit and which will not.

NOCRI facilitated a collaboration between Janssen and the NIHR's joint and related inflammatory disease translational research partnership to bring together world-class investigators from the UK's leading universities and NHS research centres and Janssen's experts.

NOCRI provided operational support, worked with Janssen in selecting the sites for the study and established an agreed operational model.

Running over 18 months, the study aims to recruit 50 patients. It is hoped the stratification of patients in this study will help define a better approach to experimental medicine in this therapeutic area and support a new way for the pharmaceutical industry to approach early phase drug development.

Make contact early – if you don't know who to contact, we can connect you to the right NIHR expertise and facilities. Email us at

Tips for collaborating with the NHS/academia: 

  • Don't allow preconceptions to cloud your judgement – health research in the NHS isn't what it was and the pace and scale of improvement has been dramatic
  • Collaborate with world-class opinion leaders – expert researchers in NHS hospitals and universities can provide valuable insight to support the development of your therapeutics. Modern drug development is a team game
  • Utilise the NIHR's pre-formed collaborations – there are translational research partnerships and collaborations in key therapeutic areas, providing easy access to networks of expertise, who are keen to work with industry
  • Talk to us – we can only help if you tell us your priorities in developing new therapies
  • Make contact early – if you don't know who to contact, we can connect you to NIHR expertise and facilities. Email us at

Mark Samuels is managing director of the National Institute for Health Research's Office for Clinical Research Infrastructure (NOCRI).