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Catherine Harmer is Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in Department of Psychiatry. In her collaboration story, Catherine shares her extensive experience of collaborating with major industry partners, and offers tips for working with industry.

Photo of Catherine Harmer, alongside a quote "I think there can be really fruitful collaborations between academics and industry to drive forward innovation in mental health research and treatment."

Could you briefly tell us about your experience of working with industry? 

My work focuses on the psychological mechanisms of antidepressant drug action and therefore provides a natural link for collaborations with industry. I’ve worked with industry in different ways as part of this work – to provide cognitive biomarkers to help in treatment development and selection of novel antidepressants as well as to facilitate access to unlicensed compounds of significant scientific interest to the field of depression which we have used in our own studies. 

We have worked with a number of large and smaller pharmaceutical companies over the years, including Servier, Lundbeck, UCB, Zogenix and Johnson & Johnson.  We have also benefitted from an MRC-based asset sharing scheme with Pfizer to explore a novel 5HT4 agonist in depression. 

How long have you been working with industry  

I started to work with P1vital, a specialised clinical research organisation, who helped forge links with industryOur first collaboration was with Servier who had developed a novel antidepressant, agomelatine, and were interested in understanding it’s effects on cognitive and emotional function. We conducted a study in Oxford exploring the effects of two different doses of agomelatine vs placebo on emotional processing as part of this, showing the likely optimal starting dose. Since then we have been involved in working with other companies such as Lundbeck, showing for example, a neural signature for cognitive improvement following treatment with their multimodal antidepressant vortioxetineThese findings were also used in regulatory submissions to demonstrate that the effects of vortioxetine were not pseudo-specific i.e. that it had a direct effect on cognition even in healthy controls rather than being a non-specific side effect of changes in overall depression severity. Together with other evidence, this was used to update the label for virotixetine to include patients with cognitive difficulties. 

Have there been other routes that led to collaborations 

We have worked a lot with industry together with P1vital but also through networking at conferences and specialist meetings. We have also benefitted from pharmaceutical company collaborations with the University of Oxford, for example through the UCB-Oxford alliance. 

What motivates you to engage with them?  

My main motivation to work with industry is to translate our academic findings into meaningful improvements in medicines available for patients with anxiety and depression. Our work has the potential to uncover new targets for clinical development as well as a means to screen and select new treatments for depression, prior to clinical testing, therefore helping to improve decision making and new possibilities for patients who are not helped by current treatments. I think there can be really fruitful collaborations between academics and industry to drive forward innovation in mental health research and treatment. 

Top three tips on working with industry  

My top tips would be to engage in meaningful conversations with relevant industry members, to understand what kind of joint research might be interesting to you both – rather than by ‘cold-calling’ or submitting an application on the off chance. I would be prepared to have many more conversations together as you draft your idea and proposal, with the actual written part of the application being relatively brief but to the point. I would also engage with experts within your department and university for advice on costing, models of collaboration, timelines and contractual/regulatory requirements. 

What has been your experience of working with the Business Partnerships Office? 

The Business Partnership Office has provided really essential support for our collaborations with industry, from flagging up opportunities all the way through to support in contracting and costing for relevant collaborations. 

Are there any other initiatives where you’re engaging with industry? 

As part of our NIHR Oxford Health BRC, we have set up an experimental medicine and industry partnership, led by Susannah Murphy. This provides a platform for translating and communicating our scientific findings to industryAs an example, we are part of a team setting up a translational science day with academic members and industry representatives involving talks and workshops co-chaired with industry on Monday 16 September.