Brainpower pumps up the patents at Ark

Maggie Lee meets the polymath professor whose work on heart disease lies behind the creation of a £125m biotech firm

John Martin, professor of cardiovascular science at University College London and founder of Ark Therapeutics, is a man known to the police. It goes back to his student days. "I was driving an ice-cream van during the day and studying to get into med school at night," he remembers. "I was reported for playing the van's jingle early one evening to drum up more custom."

John Martin, professor of cardiovascular science at University College London and founder of Ark Therapeutics, is a man known to the police. It goes back to his student days. "I was driving an ice-cream van during the day and studying to get into med school at night," he remembers. "I was reported for playing the van's jingle early one evening to drum up more custom."

Since then, Professor Martin's 30-year career has embraced both academia and the pharmaceutical industry and given him some controversial views.

"Academics should not lead biotech companies - they don't have the commercial focus," he says. "What they can do is help create the right environment for ideas to flourish to support early development."

This is despite being one of three scientists who founded Ark Therapeutics, which develops clinical treatments for heart disease and cancer. Ark, under the commercial stewardship of Martin's colleague, Dr Nigel Parker, has evolved from a company founded on one patent to a group valued at £125m.

Formed in 1997, Ark has since raised over £87m to fund growth, and established research and technology teams in the UK and Finland, successfully floating on the stock market last March. In 2004 it also launched its first product; it currently has six more in development.

Ark's origins lie in its founders' enthusiasm for scientific discovery and European collaboration. Luck too has played a role. It was by chance that Professor Martin met his fellow co-founder Professor Seppo Yla-Herttuala, an expert in clinical gene therapy, at a conference in Venice in the mid-Nineties. Yla-Herttuala, professor of molecular medicine at the University of Kuopio in Finland, was conducting pioneering work in vascular gene therapy. He was exploring ways in which genes could be transferred into human arteries to help treat and prevent disease. Martin, a practising cardiovascular physician and biologist, was interested in the mechanisms of heart disease and the arterial system.

"I had a hunch that VEGF [vascular endothelial growth factor], a natural body chemical that stops arterial cell division, could play a more significant role," Martin recalls. "For some currently unknown reason we stop producing enough of this chemical in later life. Seppo said he could put the gene that produces this chemical into a virus and introduce it to a human artery, enabling us to test its impact. "

Deciding to work together, they obtained funding from the European Commission. Along with Ark's third co-founder, Stephen Barker, a vascular surgeon, they were to confirm that VEGF helps protect arteries from blocking.

Dependent on the outcome of clinical trials, their findings could in the long term result in the development of drugs to help prevent the blockage of arteries. Martin patented their discoveries and methodologies, which was the key to obtaining initial funding from venture capitalists.

"We originally approached the big drug companies but they thought their shareholders would fight shy of gene therapy," he explains.

Grant-giving organisations, such as the British Heart Foundation, were also unable to provide direct funding. "They did not have the mechanisms to deal with these types of breakthrough. In the end I realised that if we were to get this discovery off the ground, we'd have to raise the money ourselves and form a company."

Martin is a polymath who writes poetry and paints in an abstract style in his spare time. He studied philosophy in Spain before reading medicine in his native Sheffield. After graduation he spent two years at an Australian university, before the late Sir John Vane - a 1982 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his work on aspirin - asked him to join Wellcome Research Laboratories. From 1986 to 1996 he straddled parallel careers, being head of pharmacology and cardiovascular research at Wellcome and having a research post at King's College School of Medicine.

"I was doing a dual job - a consultant in the Health Service and a manager in industry. It worked fantastically. I was able to combine two passions, research and clinical application."

It also re-enforced Martin's belief that "... you are more likely to find a richer furnace of ideas in a university-embedded biotech company than in a pharmaceutical company".

In 1990 he became the British Heart Foundation professor of cardiovascular science and moved the chair to University College London in 1996. He currently directs the Centre for Cardiovascular Biology and Medicine alongside his role as chief scientific officer at Ark.

Martin says his proudest achievement is the plan he authored with the support of the European Society of Cardiology to tackle heart disease. Endorsed by the European Council of Ministers in 1992, it is, he says "... dead simple. It aims to get every European's cholesterol to five, their blood pressure to less than 130 over 90 and stop all smoking. If we achieved this there could be an enormous impact upon mortality and healthcare costs across Europe."

He cites the plan as an example of a profession lobbying, independent of government, for a solution "...that is not driven by short-term political gain or financial constraint". Which brings him to another of his concerns, the quality of leadership in medicine.

"Leadership is poor and I'm as responsible as others for that. We've failed to spell out our beliefs. On occasions we've been acquiescent to government and the press. We've also fallen foul of the press's exploitation of people's neuroticism of death."

More optimistically, he is delighted that the formation of Ark has brought financial benefits through shareholdings to the university, strengthening its independence from government.

Martin's experience at Ark has convinced him that academics should fully participate in the development of biotech companies. But he adds: "There needs be a defined benefit to the university, and there should be transparency about the involvement of the academic's time and resources."

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