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22 November 2017updated 06 Sep 2021 3:11pm

The next 50 years of neuroscience breakthroughs

Looking to the future of innovation, taking inspiration from 50 years of neurological research at Lilly.  

By Jenniferlaird

For 50 years Eli Lilly and Company has been at the very cutting edge of medical innovation, pushing the boundaries of neuroscience research and drug development. To celebrate and mark this exciting milestone, Lilly hosted an anniversary symposium at its research site Erl Wood, entitled “The Next 50 Years of Neuroscience Research”. 

The symposium, in the spirit of collaborative innovation, brought together a combination of both long-established experts and scientists at the outset of their research programmes, showcasing experience and opening up exciting new perspectives on neurological conditions. As such, the atmosphere was one of discovery and optimism for the future of neurological research and development, and included presentations from some of the leading minds in neuroscience, sharing their thoughts and research. 

Talks were delivered by a cross-disciplinary group of medicinal chemists, imaging experts, and neuroscientists, as well as Lilly scientists, speaking on a variety of topics within neurology. Tara Spires-Jones from the University of Edinburgh covered the link between the degeneration of synapses – the junction between two nerve cells – and of the brain, an area of research which is far from complete. Johanna Jackson from Lilly showed the audience a series of fascinating images of the brains of mice at different stages of a neurological study. Ammar Al-Chalabi, of King’s College London, highlighted the difficulty of tracking and analysing a continual process such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – also known as motor neurone disease – and the innovative thinking being employed to try and counteract this problem. Mark Lythgoe, Director of the Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging at UCL, regaled delegates with the story of how a press release about his research into how stem cells containing monoparticles could be guided by magnets was misinterpreted by the Daily Mail as the news that “magnets may help to heal everything”. 

As the name of the event suggests, the symposium celebrated the past 50 years of research by eagerly looking to the next half-century. Dan Skovronsky, vice president of neuroscience at Lilly, summed up this attitude in his opening remarks: “At Erl Wood we’re focused on the next generation of drugs … we face the future with a sense of humility”. 

Erl Wood is Lilly’s largest research centre outside the US, and employs over 650 people. Over the last 10 years, Lilly has put over £1.1bn into research and development (R&D) and invested £85m in the centre. Having made Erl Wood central to its work on neurodegenerative diseases over the past 50 years, Lilly is passionate about investing in the future of neuroscience research and innovation in Britain. 

The UK is historically a leading force in life sciences research, and the scale of academic-industrial collaboration has always acted as an example for the rest of the world. However, with the spectre of Brexit on the horizon, the current political climate is uncertain, and Lilly’s ability to instigate research or partner with others is not secure. The best conditions are clarity and stability, and it seems fairly obvious that this is not the current state of affairs, with little indication of what European bodies and regulation will apply post-March 2019. 

Particularly concerning is continued access to skilled workers and research funding. At Erl Wood alone, at least 50 different nationalities are represented, and 12 per cent of the staff are EU nationals. The variety and specificity of skills required for the range of jobs at the centre means that it is crucial to have access to the biggest possible pool of talent. This concern is reflected across the neurological sector; “the uncertainty created by Brexit discussions is destabilising the neuroscience community”, says Professor Bart De Strooper from the University of Leuven, Belgium. “The question is raised by many of my colleagues whether they are still welcome in a country where they have worked very hard and contributed so much to the excellence of the British research landscape.” Lilly would like to see, in the short-term, a commitment to a transitional period, to prevent a “cliff-edge” scenario that could have serious consequences for the flow of medicines to British patients, and a guarantee for EU nationals working in the UK. Long-term, as close and collaborative a partnership as possible should be pursued with the EU, to preserve the great benefits this relationship affords life sciences innovation. Currently, Lilly collaborates in a number of Innovative Medicines Initiative projects which are partly funded by the EU, including the European prevention of Alzheimer’s dementia consortium (EPAD), initiatives in which the company would be keen to remain an active partner. 

Looking to the future, Lilly has aligned itself with the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations’ (EFPIA) #wewontrest campaign. Lilly is one of the bodies and individuals which have pledged not to rest, as illness does not, in the quest for personalised medicine in six key areas of therapy, including Alzheimer’s. The campaign seeks to increase the use of large-scale datasets to aid early detection of the disease, and to support this it promotes increased standardisation of international data to foster collaboration. 

Dan Skovronsky, on behalf of the company, pledged that #wewontrest until Alzheimer’s is a preventable disease, signalling its continued commitment to neurological research of the highest excellence, on a national and international scale. The company looks forward to leading the next 50 years of neuroscience innovation.  

Jennifer Laird is senior director of search & evaluation at Lilly.

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