The Medical Research Council (MRC) has led the way in finding new approaches to link up academic and industry researchers. Three years ago, in a pioneering deal with AstraZeneca (AZ), 15 projects were funded in which groups of academic researchers are investigating alternative uses for compounds that are no longer being developed by the company.
Dr Richard Mead’s group at SITraN were among the first to get involved in the project when it was launched in 2012. They are using a drug originally developed for Alzheimer’s disease by Astra Zeneca – but subsequently abandoned – for a new purpose: to investigate a cell signalling process which they suspect is involved in motor neurone disease (MND). While also bound by company confidentiality agreements, Richard says he’s “hopeful” about what they have discovered so far from studies in mice.
Gaining access to AZ’s resources, expertise and toxicity data for the compound they are using has given the group a great head start, and he is confident that it will allow them to get definitive answers to questions they’ve been chasing for many years:
“With the pharmacological knowledge and support of AZ and the data we’ve generated on this project we’ll be able to say definitively that this pathway isn’t worth pursuing any longer if it doesn’t work. Or conversely, if it does work we’ll have enough data to continue down the line of doing studies in patients.”
Naturally, Astra Zeneca gain from the deal too. The company has exclusive rights to buy back the intellectual property on any drugs that look promising, and access to information they couldn’t get anywhere else, says Richard:
“At the University of Sheffield we are experts in our animal models. Most drug companies wouldn’t have deep knowledge of the preclinical model systems for a disease like MND – it just wouldn’t be worth their while to invest in that over many years. But we can describe in detail how we will execute a study for a particular drug, depending on the pathway that it’s targeting.”