Researchers at the University of Cambridge develop a groundbreaking new method for drug discovery, new drugs and a spinout company worth £100 million.
What was the problem?
New drugs are constantly needed. Whether it be new antibiotics to fight the rise of antimicrobial resistance, a cure for a previously untreatable disease, or the next step in winning the fight against cancer, scientists from a broad range of disciplines are constantly developing new strategies and innovative treatment methods to identify solutions for healthcare challenges.
Developing a new medicine from initial concept to successfully deployed drug is lengthy and extremely costly. It has been estimated that, on average, bringing a new drug to market costs $2.6 billion and takes 10–15 years, and with the last new class of antibiotics having been developed in 1987, innovative methodologies are desperately needed.
What was the solution?
In the 1990s, Professor Chris Abell and Professor Sir Tom Blundell at the University of Cambridge, funded by the BBSRC, began investigating enzyme inhibition in relation to drug development. An interest in developing a structure-based approach to enzyme inhibition led to a collaboration with Dr Harren Jhoti, former head of structural biology and bioinformatics at Glaxo Wellcome (now GSK).
The novel approach to drug discovery involved looking at the way small parts of drug molecules behaved. Drugs work by binding to proteins in the body and activating or inhibiting their behaviour, resulting in a beneficial therapeutic effect. However, due to their size, studying this interaction in a typical drug molecule is complex and time consuming. The researchers focused their attention on much smaller fragments of the drug-like molecules, drastically increasing the efficiency of the design process.
The collaboration led to the establishment of the company Astex Technology Ltd in 1998, backed by City investors interested in supporting biotechnology start-up companies. Astex built upon the university’s fundamental research by combining fragment-based drug discovery with high-throughput methods and roboticised data collection.
As a consequence of Astex’s success, fragmentbased approaches are commonplace throughout pharma and biotech.
What was the impact?
Since their formation Astex has created 8 potential drugs that have progressed to clinical development; four being developed in-house and four through collaborations with Janssen, Novartis and AstraZeneca. Between 1999 and 2011, Astex signed contracts in excess of £1 billion, and received over £100 million in investment. Over the last decade Astex has secured constant employment for between 70 and 120 workers.
In 2011 Astex was sold to SuperGen Inc for £100 million, creating Astex Pharmaceuticals with an estimated value in excess of £320 million. In 2013 the company was in turn acquired by Otsuka Pharmaceuticals for $886 million.
Fragment-based drug discovery is recognised as one of the most important developments in drug discovery in the last 20 years. Astex have made a significant change to how the pharmaceutical industry approach drug discovery; and most pharmaceutical companies now use fragment-based methods in early discovery including Johnson & Johnson, GSK and AstraZeneca. The use of fragments may lead to totally new classes of therapeutic agents designed to meet the medical needs of the 21st century.