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Boost for drug discovery

Jonathan Wood

A scientific consortium engaged in research relevant to the discovery of new drugs has been given a big boost, with almost £31 million in new funding over four years. Two new drug companies have also joined the public-private partnership, showing the recognised importance of this work to the drug development process.

The Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC) is based at the University of Oxford and the University of Toronto, Canada. It was formed in 2004 and carries out research on human proteins relevant to disease, supported by funding from the public and private sector. It makes all of its findings available to the global research community without restriction.

Since it was launched, private funding to the SGC has increased greatly as pharma companies recognise what the consortium can offer. A majority of the new funding now comes from private sources.

‘Pharma is increasingly recognising that early drug discovery is too complex for each organisation alone, and this is a way of accessing academic and clinical expertise,’ says Chas Bountra, chief scientist for the Structural Genomics Consortium at the University of Oxford.

The new members of the SGC are Eli Lilly Canada and Pfizer Inc, who join fellow drug companies GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis. The four companies will also provide more than £5.7 million worth of in-kind contributions, primarily medicinal chemistry resources.

The other consortium funders include the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation and the Wellcome Trust.

The SGC scientific programme for the next four years will see its core strength in determining the three-dimensional structures of key human proteins continue. Understanding the structure of proteins can help guide the discovery and design of new drugs that interact with the proteins. Since its inception, the SGC has contributed more than 1,300 high quality three-dimensional protein structures to the public domain. 

But the SGC will also broaden its work, following successful pilot projects in ‘epigenetics’. There is broad agreement that a better understanding of epigenetics – changes in the activity of genes that occur without any changes in the DNA sequence – may eventually yield new approaches to diagnosing and treating a number of important diseases.

The research will generate antibodies against proteins involved in epigenetic control, and identify chemical compounds that block the action of specific human proteins. These tools – protein structures, antibodies and chemical inhibitors – are important early steps that facilitate the drug discovery process, targeting proteins involved in disease processes.

About £13.5 million of the new funding will be coming to the SGC base at the University of Oxford. Research here will focus on generating novel chemical inhibitors for epigenetic proteins thought to be involved in cancer, inflammatory and neuropsychiatric diseases. These inhibitors could help determine how things like diet, injury, toxins and other environmental factors affect disease susceptibility and progression at a molecular level through epigenetics, explains Chas Bountra.

Importantly, all the tools will be provided openly to the research community worldwide, rather than being locked up within the walls of any one institution or company. Providing structural data and chemical reagents for free should speed the process of research and drug discovery and avoid any duplication of effort.

It is clear drug companies are increasingly buying into this idea. Indeed, Chas believes this model of an open public-private partnership seen in the SGC can be extended much further down the drug development process, taking novel drug candidates as far as the critical early-stage clinical trials where many stand or fall.

He has spoken about how pooling the resources of academics, public funders and private drug companies, and openly distributing results in the absence of any protected intellectual property, should play an increasing role in coming up with the new drugs we need in crucial areas like dementia.

Most drug candidates will still fail at this early stage but the approach stops repetition and reduces exposure of patients, says Chas Bountra. And with those new drugs that work, pharma can then do what it’s good at – finding the best molecule, developing it, and taking it to market.