Pharma companies offer up compounds to UK researchers

Seven pharmaceutical companies have agreed to grant UK academic researchers access to a virtual library of ‘deprioritised’ compounds.

The partnership is between the Medical Research Council (MRC) and AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Janssen Research & Development, Lilly, Pfizer, Takeda and UCB and is an extension of an existing initiative pioneered by AstraZeneca.

The scheme, co-ordinated by the UK government, is aimed at creating closer ties between the pharma industry and academic researchers, with the hope of generating more promising molecules and consolidating the UK’s life sciences research base.

The compounds have undergone some degree of industry development, but have all stalled at some point in early testing – often because they are not sufficiently effective against the disease in question. However, they may still be useful against other diseases with shared biological pathways.

These compounds are very valuable to academic researchers, who can use them to understand disease in the body and how it might be stopped or slowed down. It is hoped that re-purposing of such compounds could lead to new medicines for many debilitating conditions. And because the compounds have already undergone some preliminary development, such as safety testing, any new treatments arising from the research could reach patients much faster.

Projects funded through a previous compound sharing initiative between the MRC and AstraZeneca are already demonstrating success in this area, with the first human trials of a new treatment for chronic cough getting underway.

Professor Sir John Savill, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, said: “Our ground-breaking compound collaboration with AstraZeneca attracted a huge amount of interest from the academic community and saw the MRC award £7 million for research into Alzheimer’s, cancer and rare diseases. We’re now building on this success by expanding into a rolling programme with seven companies that will allow the academic community to access even more assets for use in innovative research projects. By funding studies using these compounds, which otherwise would not be carried out, we will enable scientific breakthroughs that will improve the health of patients in the UK and worldwide.”

A full list of available compounds will be published later this year, when UK scientists will be able to apply for MRC funding to use them in academic research projects. There is no fixed budget for the programme, which will make the compounds available on a continuous basis via the MRC’s normal response-mode funding mechanism. It is hoped that more companies, and more compounds, will be added as the scheme progresses.

Stephen Whitehead, chief executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), said the partnership was a fantastic example of open innovation, and would open up new avenues for research, and allow some molecules to be re-purposed towards treating a different disease to that originally intended.

Research proposals will be submitted to the MRC, which will independently judge the scientific quality of the applications and award funding accordingly. The rights to intellectual property (IP) generated using the compounds will vary from project to project, but the MRC says this will be equitable and similar to those currently used in academically-led research.

Case study: from acid reflux to chronic cough

AstraZeneca launched its groundbreaking project to share compounds via the MRC in December 2011, and this is now beginning to bear fruit. In Manchester, clinical trials have begun to see whether a drug originally designed to treat gastro-oesophageal reflux disease can be repurposed to treat chronic cough. Cough is the single most common reason that people seek medical care. It is thought that one in five people in the UK suffer from chronic coughing (lasting longer than eight weeks), which can have a huge impact on their quality of life.

Previous work by The University of Manchester researchers, led by Professor Jacky Smith, found that in around half of people with chronic cough, the cough reflex is related to gastro-oesophageal reflux, where the stomach contents escape back up into the food pipe causing a burning sensation. It is hoped that the repurposed drug, which was not found to be helpful in patients with heartburn who were already taking acid-blocking treatments, may be successful in improving cough.

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AstraZeneca and MRC to create a new centre for early drug discovery

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