Flying the asthma flag in New York

By Kay Boycott, Chief Executive of Asthma UK

Kay Boycott, Chief Executive of Asthma UKToday, Dr Samantha Walker and I are in New York representing Asthma UK and asthma research at the Partnering for Cures conference.  The conference brings together hundreds of people including policymakers, scientists, investors, drug company executives, patient advocates, hospital and not-for-profit leaders who are motivated by the same goal - to reduce the time and cost of getting new therapies from the laboratory to the patient. This is the first time we’ve attended, but at Asthma UK we are increasingly focused on brokering collaborations with the view of greater investment in asthma research, in the UK and internationally. We are hopeful this event will help us learn from other disease areas and find potential new partners in our mission to Stop Asthma Attacks and Cure Asthma.

We have very clear goals and priorities for these partnerships.  After three years of leading the ground breaking European Asthma Research and Innovation Partnership we now have the state of the art thinking on asthma science and a consensus across international experts from industry and academia and people with asthma of the priority areas for asthma research. We now know the most pressing need for all partners is to understand more about the different types of asthma. This will allow us to drastically improve diagnostics and create new personalised treatments, rather than the more hit-and-miss approach of ‘trial by treatment’. These priorities are at the heart of the new Asthma UK Research Strategy which also sets out our ambition to drive even more collaborations as an ‘honest broker’ between industry, academics from different institutions or disciplines and people with asthma.  That’s why we are so delighted to have been asked to showcase a recent innovative research collaboration – in epigenetics - at a British Consulate General reception tonight. 

Exploring how our genes operate

Epigenetics – changes in the way genes operate in our bodies – is a promising new avenue for respiratory research. While you and I might share many of the same genes, lifestyle and environmental factors can lead to some of our genes being switched on and off during our lifetime, with very different health outcomes for different people. Lots of work has been done in understanding epigenetics in cancer, but it is relatively unexplored in respiratory.

A new innovative not for profit - industry epigenetics collaboration partners Asthma UK with AstraZeneca, the British Lung Foundation and the medical research charity MRC Technology to investigate the link between epigenetics and respiratory diseases such as asthma with the aim of finding new treatments and potentially even a cure. By combining resources and expertise in drug discovery, research and funding, we are seeking out the most promising drugs, to test vast numbers of compounds at speed and accelerate the pipeline of drugs in development to increase the quality of treatments on offer. The first applications have just been submitted and we start the first screening before the end of the year.

Playing a crucial role

Asthma UK is playing a crucial role in this collaboration. Not only in expert knowledge of asthma and research in this area, but also access to networks of leading scientists developed from decades of asthma research funding, and the voices of people with asthma. It’s critical that this voice is heard loud and clear throughout the process of development. There is no point making treatments and diagnostic tools that no one will want or be able to use. Sometimes researchers may forget that, whilst life-saving, repeated oral steroids come with highly unpleasant side effects, but that is something that those affected most want us to change.

Increasingly we are seeing a trend towards charities like Asthma UK playing the honest broker role to link the right industry and research partners. Progress will be achieved fastest if we combine the assets and capabilities of all sectors, rather than operating in silos. At Asthma UK we are currently involved in five potential collaborations across different areas of science and across national borders. Building the strongest asthma team is what we, and people with asthma want, and we hope that flying the flag for asthma this week in New York will benefit our mission and lead to even more.