From “enthusiastic amateur” to indispensable contributor: 20 years of service to malaria drug discovery

From “enthusiastic amateur” to indispensable contributor: 20 years of service to malaria drug discovery

Since the day he answered MMV’s ad in Nature for drug discovery expertise, Sir Simon Campbell has been a stalwart supporter and indispensable contributor to MMV’s work. He was the very first Chair of MMV’s Expert Scientific Advisory Committee (ESAC) from 1999–2003. He later rejoined the Committee as a member in 2008 for two 3-year terms, and then again in 2017 and still serves today. In 1972, he joined Pfizer Central Research, Sandwich, UK, as a medicinal chemist. Innovative research by Sir Simon and his teams led to the discovery of Norvasc, Viagra and Cardura, which all became world leaders in their therapeutic classes. In October 1998, he retired as Pfizer’s Senior Vice President for Worldwide Discovery and Medicinals R&D Europe and in 1999 he became a Fellow of the Royal Society – an honour rare for scientists in industry. In addition, he received a knighthood for services to chemistry in 2015.

Not only was he part of the group that helped to establish MMV and ESAC, he has provided mentorship to a number of the project teams that have delivered clinical candidates, including three projects that have received MMV’s prestigious Project of the Year award.

Sir Simon tells us about what it was like to take part in MMV’s beginnings, how ESAC has evolved over the past 20 years and how he sees the organization developing over the next decades.

1. You were part of the group that helped establish MMV in 1999. Set the scene for us: what was it like and how did you become involved?

The task that MMV faced at the time was daunting: the pipeline for new antimalarials was nearly empty, the medicines in use no longer worked and there was little interest from the pharmaceutical industry. Malaria was killing around 1 million people per year, mainly children in Sub-Saharan Africa—about double the number of deaths we see today.  

In 1999, I noticed an advertisement in Nature for scientists with drug discovery experience to join ESAC to provide scientific oversight for this new initiative to combat malaria. I applied for the position and was interviewed in London by Robert Ridley, the Chief Scientific Officer at the time, and he invited me to chair ESAC, which I accepted. I didn’t know anything about malaria, but other ESAC members brought world class anti-parasitic expertise, and I brought drug discovery experience.

It was a major challenge, and we started small. MMV had seed funding of US$ 4 million and half a dozen staff or less. We borrowed a small room from the WHO and didn’t have the resources or support structure MMV has today. It was all very low key at the start. We were enthusiastic amateurs that helped lay the foundation for the professional and successful organization which is MMV today.

2. You were the first chair of our ESAC and still serve on the committee today. What role does ESAC play and how has it evolved over the last 20 years?

The role of ESAC is to attract high-quality drug discovery projects and steer them through to completion. We select and review projects and we advise multidisciplinary research teams on how best to achieve their scientific objectives.

Early on, ESAC reviewed a largely academic portfolio, there was very little industry involvement as there wasn’t much incentive. However, the quality of the projects, the professionalism of the organization and the credibility of ESAC helped to attract industry participation. We soon learned that academic and industry scientists had such different ways of working that it was important to create some uniformity across such disparate approaches. One of the great achievements of ESAC and MMV has been to drive consistency across the criteria for target identification, lead selection and candidate nomination. This is an essential step when you have such a diverse portfolio of research projects coming from different sectors all over the world. Over time, the quality of MMV’s projects grew and we attracted more partners from the biotech and pharmaceutical sectors. The transformation of the MMV portfolio from an academic endeavor to a professional global portfolio pooling multi-disciplinary expertise from both the public and private sectors has been very satisfying, and I know ESAC has played an essential role in this. I must thank all of my colleagues on ESAC for giving so freely of their time and for making such key contributions to the fight against malaria, and also of course to the professional and dedicated staff at MMV. 

3. University of Dundee researchers were recently awarded Project of the Year for the KRS project, could you describe the scientific approach and your role as mentor?

The project objective is to inhibit an enzyme called KRS, which is present in parasites and in humans, therefore we have to design inhibitors selective for the P. falciparum parasite. Over the past couple of years, the team made great progress in developing potent and selective inhibitors, and we have compounds which have an excellent overall profile. My role as mentor has been to work together with the team on a monthly basis, participating in the scientific discussions and offering advice to help achieve our scientific objectives.

4. How do you see MMV developing over the next 20 years?

Let me be radical: my ambition is that MMV will not exist in 20 years because the worldwide malaria community has made tremendous progress towards successful eradication. There has been so much progress since 2000, including a massive reduction in the incidence of malaria infections and annual deaths.

Over the next 20 years, I think such advances will continue, yet have some doubt that eradication would be realistic over that time frame. Resistance continues to build in Southeast Asia and if these parasites jump across to Africa we will need to be ready with new drug combinations. Today, MMV is delivering antimalarials at scale because of the numbers of cases involved. Over time, MMV will probably focus on new medicines for specific populations who are poorly treated by current therapies, including pan-resistant strains. I very much hope that our combined efforts will defeat malaria once and for all.

Sir Simon Campbell, Former SVP for WW Discovery, Pfizer, MMV ESAC member