The Hotel Russell, Bloomsbury, sets the scene as Detective Inspector Pinching pulls up two tan leather armchairs for another caffeine-laced exchange. The man he’s facing is GSK’s Director, Academic Liason, CBE and Harry Redknapp-tormentor, Malcolm Skingle.
It’s bloody freezing. I need a chat that’s going to warm my cold editor’s heart. I arrive, and an incredibly enthusiastic woman leads me into the upmarket reception room of this legendary bed and breakfast establishment. Malcolm has the relaxed expression of a man who has stayed in practically every hotel on Trip Advisor. It was time to talk about football, erm, I mean pharma.
Hello Malcolm, what’s your story?
I trained as a pharmacologist and this defined the first half of my career, before I eventually started running a research group. I was fortunate to be part of a great department and during my time in the labs we discovered and developed some ground-breaking medicines including, Zantac, Trandate, Salbutamol, Salmeterol, Imigran and Zofran. After 20 years of bench science, I went to work at the interface of academia and industry, and this is an area I now know well. In the past the interactions between universities, medical schools, funders and pharma were clunky, and the challenge has been to vastly improve these vital relationships.
What exactly does your job involve?
I leverage science that helps underpin what GSK is doing. That might involve a technology that the company needs to drive one of its programmes, or talking to the head of a funding agency about working together on a certain scientific topic. I’ll form collaborations with anybody, either carrying out or funding good science; this includes government departments, charities such as the Wellcome Trust, the research councils and universities. We have academic collaborations in around 50 UK universities and interact with educational institutions in over 25 other countries.
How has your role changed over the years?
Universities and pharma companies are now far more open to collaboration. Twenty years ago big pharma would work in secret and not share information and best practice. We used to be fat cats, and money wasn’t an issue, but things have changed quite dramatically as companies try to get their research budgets to stretch further. We now work together in consortia, underpinning in-house efforts. The Structural Genomics Consortium, Dundee signalling consortium and EU Innovative Medicines Initiative are all collaborations where several pharma companies fund joint projects and share information. This type of activity will increase in the future as we collectively create the new knowledge required to develop new medicines.
What is your relationship like with the ABPI?
I sit on the Innovation Board and chair their academic liaison group. GSK takes the lead in several areas and we use it to share best practice. Pooling knowledge and data is positive for the industry.
How pivotal is the ABPI’s role in terms of reform?
They’ve got big responsibilities when it comes to collating messages from different pharma companies, who may not always have identical views on certain topics. Stephen Whitehead works hard to collate and articulate a consensus view.
Where do you stand on Ben Goldacre (metaphorically speaking)?
I’ve never met him, but I’d like to. The industry gets a bit beaten up in his book, but I do agree that we need to build greater trust with both the public and media. You need radicals like Ben Goldacre to make people rethink certain issues. I joined Glaxo straight from school; did my degree and PhD through the organisation and, in 40 years, I can put my hand on my heart and swear on my children’s lives, that I have never seen anything unethical.
How important is transparency and sharing information?
Companies are at different stages of wanting to share. Our Chief Executive, Andrew Witty, is a great leader and the sort of guy you would follow over the wall into battle. He was the first pharma chief exec to say that we’re going to publish all our clinical trial data. Some other companies aren’t quite there yet, but I am sure they will come around in the near future. It is vitally important to share data with other scientists, so that it can be validated.
GSK seems like an organisation that likes to be ‘out there’
We’re easily the most visible pharma company at the academic-industry interface and we have more collaborations than anyone in the country. This includes, not only pharma, but also companies from other sectors like aerospace and energy. Every two years the ABPI collect the data from all UK pharma, and GSK publish it. Part of my mission is to go around talking about what we do and I am passionate about GSK being transparent, our great science and being a good partner.
What partnership venture are you most excited about?
We’ve got an open access lab in Tres Cantos, Madrid, working on diseases in the developing world. This includes high containment facilities for pathogens, 120 GSK scientists and the capacity to take an additional 60 outsiders. The open access agreements mean that if someone has a bright idea for treating malaria or TB, for example, you can go there and have access to our chemistry and drug development technology. We’re serious about making a difference.
What successes have emerged from this project?
Five of our scientists screened two million compounds, by hand, in order to find leads against the deadliest malaria parasites. We then published a database last year containing all the 13,500 structures, which anybody can access as potential leads. Over 80% of these were proprietary and discovered by GSK. We want to share, as we can’t possibly carry out all the science connected with something like malaria on our own, so we stimulate interest in order to take a drug through. It’s been so successful that MMV (Medicines for Malaria Venture) has provided our compounds to more than 100 labs around the world. People feel proud to work for the company because of that.
Tell me more about what you’re doing with the universities
The most fruitful thing we do is post-doc collaborations that involve intellectual inputs from both the academics and us. We will also, at any one time, have around 250 PhDm studentships, which we co-fund with the research councils.
Are GSK keen to continue operating in the UK?
We’ve got a chief executive who is British, he’s Chancellor of Nottingham University and we’ve got our headquarters in Brentford. Does that sound like a company that’s just about to bugger off to New Jersey?
Malcolm, you’re clearly on the road a lot how do you strike the old work/life balance?
My wife is very understanding – I earn reasonable money and she’s good at spending it – and I’ve got two wonderful daughters. I love sport and used to play semi-pro football in the Isthmian League, and that has helped me to apply myself 100% to everything I do.
Hold on, who did you play for?
Firstly, Bishop Stortford – my home town – then Borehamwood for six years, before the company moved me to Greenford, and I joined Kingstonian. When they moved me back again, I played for Hertford. We had a few cup runs at Borehamwood, drawing at home with Swindon Town in the FA Cup, and losing the replay 2-0; we also won the league with 103 points. I don’t think that total has ever been beaten.
What position did you play?
I was a winger and also used to score goals, playing off a big man. When I got slower I drifted into central midfield.
Did you encounter any big names?
Yeah, I would regularly play against people, either on their way up or coming back down, like Gordon Hill, who was at Southall and went on to play for Manchester United and England. Sometimes I think I’m dreaming it, but when Bobby Moore finished playing and West Ham more or less dumped him, he managed the Oxford City team that I scored against. I remember it was pouring down with rain that day and Harry Redknapp was playing for them, just before his managerial career took off.