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‘Win-win’ as Milner Institute brokers pharma trio to explore autophagy

The Milner Therapeutics Institute‘s efforts to broker a consortium of companies to address the challenges of neurodegenerative diseases has resulted in three new participants – Astex Pharmaceuticals, Eisai and Eli Lilly – bringing the group to 10 firms.

The Jeffrey Cheah Centre is home to The Milner Institute
The Jeffrey Cheah Centre is home to The Milner Institute

The new collaboration will see the pharmaceutical trio join forces with research scientists across Cambridge to explore promising new approaches to the treatment of neurodegenerative disease – starting with autophagy.

Autophagy – literally ‘self-eating’ – is the process which clears the build-up of unwanted material in our cells. Normally carefully controlled, it removes damaged proteins and keeps cells healthy, but one feature of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s is that damaged proteins build up in the brain — ultimately destroying nerve cells. What if we could get rid of these proteins by switching on the body’s own mechanism for clearing out its cellular trash? Could this lead to breakthrough treatments?

That is the challenge a group of research scientists and industry partners in Cambridge has set itself, in a groundbreaking model of pre-competitive collaboration led by the University’s Milner Therapeutics Institute at the Jeffrey Cheah Biomedical Centre.

The therapeutics consortium agreement enables collaborative research between consortium companies and academics across Cambridge. There are ongoing projects across ten departments and institutes of the university, and at the Babraham Institute. There are a total of 25 collaborative projects between academics and pharma companies in total. The projects are broad in remit and can include access to compounds, datasets or know-how in a particular technique.

The Milner Institute’s deputy director, Dr Kathryn Chapman, says: “Finding new treatments for neurodegeneration is a mammoth challenge. Everyone recognises it to be a vitally important target for drug discovery, but it is such a complex area that it is hard for companies to make significant progress on their own.”

Dr Kathryn Chapman, deputy director at the Milner Therapeutics Institute
Dr Kathryn Chapman, deputy director at the Milner Therapeutics Institute

Chapman and colleagues felt that the Milner Institute could play an important convening role, bringing together academic and industry experts. One of these is world authority on autophagy, Dr Nicholas Ktistakis from the Babraham Institute, who will be working alongside Dr Alex Whitworth from the MRC-Mitochondrial Biology Unit in the University’s School of Clinical Medicine. Whitworth is an expert in mitophagy, a form of autophagy affecting mitochondria.

Nicola Wallis, senior VP biology at Astex Pharmaceuticals on Cambridge Science Park, said: “This is a really interesting development for us.

“We have worked with the Milner Institute before but not with other pharma companies. The difference with this initiative is that we can all use the results and explore individual areas on our own going forward.

“As companies, we will be more interested in some areas than others. So this is very much a win-win.”

“Our hope,” adds Dr Chapman, “is that some new targets for drug discovery can be taken forward into clinical development by one or more of the companies.”

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