An Interview With Dr Christophe Portal, Head Of Chemistry At Edinburgh Molecular Imaging

From scientific discovery to clinical phase compounds: how did it all start?

Edinburgh Molecular Imaging (EMI) was set-up almost 5 years ago as a spin-off from the University of Edinburgh. It was based on a portfolio of agents directed to the imaging of lung pathologies such as fibrosis, inflammation and infection. We realised early in the process that we needed to increase our portfolio, bring new agents that would be more advanced into the pipeline and focus more on cancer. We thought it was there where we could really make a difference because there was a need of improvement in terms of imaging. This is how we decided to license an agent from GE Healthcare.

Now, the EMI-137 compound is currently in Phase IIb clinical study in two centres and we are working at the design of a multicentre Phase III study, which will start in 2019 or 2020. This agent aims to be commercialised initially for endoscopic imaging of colorectal cancer. However, multiple academic investigators are now testing it for a series of applications, including for diagnosing other cancers or for surgical margin delineation in colorectal, breast, head, neck, and ovarian cancer.

What is EMI’s experience of being part of the EPSRC IGT Network+? 

At EMI, we value the power of networks. Some of our best collaborations started as informal interactions at events. Networks such as the Image Guided Therapies one are important for people to catch up together. We are not doing exactly the same work as other contributors; yet, without necessarily being aware, we are actually tackling the same issues as a number of people in the network. It is during these discussions that we realise that we are confronted with the same problems, and then learn and benefit from each other’s approaches, perspectives, and ideas. As a professional, however, one of the main advantages is the human interaction. The experience makes me more efficient, open to what other people do and more aware of the new research and current trends I don’t always have time to go through during a normal working day.

What are the most critical gaps in the IGT field at the moment?

One of the big constraints we have in Scotland is not having many clinical centres able to offer optical imaging. Although it is starting to get shaped, at the moment we don’t have a large network or a bunch of potential collaborators for clinical trials in optical imaging.

On a broader scale, what is lacking in terms of interaction with academia or within the IGT Network+ is aligning interests of hardware suppliers with those of clinicians. We are all moving very fast in directions which are not necessarily aligned and we are all taking different routes. It is hard to find common ground in this complex environment and we are forcing ourselves to have the same mind-set as that of a clinician, hardware supplier, and regulatory person. This is the big gap that we are currently facing.

You mentioned hardware suppliers and clinicians. What are your thoughts on partnering with academia?

Academia has an incredible infrastructure, a lot of energy and desire to disrupt. That’s the beauty of it, the exciting part and what we experience almost every time we start collaborations with universities. On the other side, what is frustrating is setting up contracts and discussing all of the paperwork, which happens to be every time extremely long and tedious.

Another aspect is that the role of academia at the moment is not very clear. There is a big push to make innovation worthwhile, patent and sale it. But I think this may change the focus of academia in order to make it more industry compatible. This is not what we are looking for through collaboration with academia. Between academia and industry there should be long-term collaborations, not only translation collaborations. Besides our clinical stage flagship programmes, we also have a lot of collaborations on very early stage projects and we know that these won’t mature for many years. However, for us, it is more interesting liaising with academic groups pioneering research in the field than having directly translatable assets.

What are the biggest strengths of the EMI team?

That would be resilience. An incredible amount of energy is required in general to implement R&D projects, but being part of clinical activities is very much like chasing moving targets on a moving vessel in a storm. Nothing ever goes to plan, but there have been many individuals keeping the same energy and positive thinking and this has been the key to our success. People look after each other and there’s always someone to re-inject energy into the project when demotivation hits.

What are EMI’s current goals and challenges?

Progressing revenue making assets, the ones that are closer to commercialisation, is the absolute number one priority. If we have the right-hand end of the pipeline pushed through and if we achieve commercialisation, this is the driver that would help feed the rest of the pipeline. Another objective is to keep developing the portfolio of agents. In terms of challenges, besides the business as usual scientific ones, I would mention raising funds.

From your experience at EMI, what would you advise a scientific team aspiring to bring their research to clinical trial level?

Stay simple. Simple ideas, simple design, simple implementation plan. It will always be more complicated than anticipated and it can always get more complex than it needs. Also important is having lots of discussions, human interaction and trust which build long-term relationships. This should be the base for people collaborating. Through rich human interaction you can free your mind and it can get you to focus on things that you haven’t anticipated, but that can be beneficial for your technical work.