Our first interview in 2017 is with John Wise of the Pistoia Alliance.

1) Please introduce yourself, what is your background and your current role?

My name is John Wise. I graduated in physiology from the University of Oxford before obtaining a post-graduate certificate in education at the University of London. Nowadays I have a small consultancy practice working in biopharma life science R&D.

I spend some of my time working as a business development consultant for the Pistoia Alliance (more about that later) and I also act as the Programme Coordinator for the PRISME Forum which is a not-for-profit, biopharma R&D IT leadership group focussed on the identification and palliation of “hot topics”, and the sharing of industry best practices.

I have always worked in life science R&D and in very large part in informatics. I spent the early part of my career in the physiology and then the pharmacology departments in St George’s Hospital Medical School where we had DEC PDP 11s fitted with analogue to digital converters to interface to the experiments. I became very fluent in FORTRAN! Then I joined Sandoz (in the days before it became Novartis) at their Institute for Medical Research located in University College London and then at the headquarters in Basel. I headed IT at the ICRF for a while and spent some time on the technology supply side of the industry before working for the Japanese pharmaceutical company Daiichi Sankyo.  These activities have given me direct, hands-on experience of delivering computer-based services to demanding scientific end-user communities across the life science R&D value chain!

2) What is Pistoia Alliance? What is the mission of Pistoia Alliance?

The Pistoia Alliance is a not-for-profit, virtual, cross-company, pre-competitive collaboration, members’ organisation committed to lowering the barriers to innovation in Life Science R&D. It was conceived during a conversation among 4 informaticians from 4 big pharma companies who bumped into each other at a meeting in 2007 in Pistoia in the Italian region of Tuscany. The conclusion of their discussions was that they thought it would be a “good idea” if the R&D challenges common to them all were resolved in a common way. The Pistoia Alliance was formally incorporated as a not-for-profit type 501 (c) (6) organisation in 2009 and started working on its first generation of projects that year. I started working with the Pistoia Alliance in 2010 trying to help the organisation deliver its projects on cloud-based Gene Sequence Services, Semantically Enriched Scientific Literature, Vocabulary Standards and a query service standard applicable for use across ELNs (electronic lab notebooks).

3) What are the main activities of the Pistoia Alliance, who and how can contribute?

The Pistoia Alliance expends much of its energy on running projects. For example, it is supporting the Controlled Substance Compliance Expert Community, developing the HELM standard (the Hierarchical Editing Language for Macromolecules which is now part of the ISO 11238 standard), compiling a Chemical Safety Library, delivering on Ontology Mapping and launching the construction of a User Experience / User-Centred Design of Scientific Software support toolkit. It is developing a CoI (community of interest) to address the challenges of delivering sequence services in the regulated domains of biopharma and another CoI to explore common pain points in Non-Clinical Development. There are many other nascent projects in the pipeline – just waiting for the Pistoia Alliance community to fund them.

Other activities include the “President’s Challenge”. This is an open competition whereby prizes are awarded to small, start up, entrepreneurial companies who have an exciting value proposition to address topics of importance to the biopharmaceutical industry selected by the Pistoia Alliance. The first prize in the last competition was $15,000 and 6 months’ mentorship by senior leaders from biopharmaceutical companies. Two such prizes were awarded – one judged by a select panel of experts, the other by the Pistoia Alliance membership in a “shark tank” or “dragon’s den” session at their annual conferences where the 5 short-listed companies presented their “pitches”.

The winners of the Pistoia Alliance President’s Start-up Challenge in 2015 were:

  • Repositive – a software company developing novel tools to improve access to human genomic research data
  • Novaseek – a health technology company that provides access to an extensive supply of clinically annotated human bio-specimens and clinical data from consenting patients.

The winners of the Pistoia Alliance President’s Start-up Challenge in 2016 were:

  • Pine Biotech – a USA-based start-up that specialises in big data analysis and data mining in biomedicine
  • Medexprim – a French start-up that has developed the Radiomics Enabler®, which gives researchers new ways to exploit their medical image archives.

Any organisation with a commitment to improve life science R&D can join the Pistoia Alliance. There is a range of fees such that small start-up organisations pay $1K per year through small and mid-sized companies up to very big companies – such as the top ten pharma companies – that pay $50K per year. Not-for-profit organisations can join for free as can academics and sole traders.

Currently the Pistoia Alliance has over 80 members of which over 40 are paying members.

4) Could you please tell us about data sharing projects run by the Pistoia Alliance?

The Antibody Project is one such project. Antibodies are a useful therapeutic moiety – but making them “drugable” is an unpredictable formulation challenge. The Pistoia Alliance is working with some of its biopharmaceutical company members to provide the Antibody Project Team with post-competitive antibody samples in order to study their crystal structure.  Then we can get the antibody structures deposited in the PDB (Protein Data Bank). With an enhanced collection of such crystal structures with an enhanced chemical diversity, better modelling and simulation could be done and better prediction of antibody behaviour accomplished.

Another data sharing project is our Chemical Safety Library. Many chemistry laboratories have valuable, empirical information of chemical reaction incidents, but that knowledge is typically locked in internal data silos, and is not generally accessible to help others prevent a repetition of the dangerous reaction.  This project has constructed a tool and methodology whereby such reaction safety information can be submitted to a central library and can be freely searched and downloaded.  The safety information can be used directly, or users can customise implementations by funnelling the data into systems such as electronic notebook or inventory systems, where automated warning can then be initiated.  In fact, several of our members already have such customised warning procedures in place – but what they lacked until now was the learnings from their fellow chemists at institutions other than their own.

5) What is your vision of the future of the Pistoia Alliance?

Well, the Pistoia Alliance is the unique, virtual, pre-competitive, open innovation incubator supporting life science R&D. Any of our members as of right can join any project team; indeed any member can recommend any potential project for the Pistoia Alliance to pursue. The Pistoia Alliance strongly encourages a multidisciplinary approach to its work, it supports and develops the ability for members to work in virtual teams and it stresses the need to link the science with the technology in order to gain maximum benefit.

So, over the coming years, I envisage the Pistoia Alliance membership continuing to increase and with that enhanced, available energy, the Pistoia Alliance will re-enforce its position as the “go to” organisation that can construct and deliver common solutions to common problems in life science and healthcare R&D. To be specific the Pistoia Alliance of the future will:

  • increase its support of entrepreneurial start-up companies that improve the efficiency of life science R&D;
  • benefit from its Advisory Board – to be convened in 2017 and made up of senior members of the life science and healthcare communities – signposting the ‘hot topics’ that will improve efficiency in discovering and developing new, effective medicines;
  • develop into an organisation acknowledged for catalysing earlier, broader, deeper and seamless pre-competitive collaborations across all our member organisations that will create and implement projects of immense value that will make significant impact on life science R&D and healthcare;
  • create the inclusive, pre-competitive collaboration environment that will expedite the research and development of diagnostics in parallel with the discovery and development of therapeutics – all supported by state-of-the-art information systems.

Are you part of a project that facilitates data sharing for genomics or other related research?

Are you directly or indirectly involved in the Open Science movement?

Would you like to be featured on our blog?

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